Do I own my website?

One of the commonest questions from small businesses venturing onto the internet for the first time is “Will I own my website?”.  The answer’s complicated and depends on how you have set up your site and who’s built it – but the question is pretty complicated too.  What do you mean by ‘own’ your site?  In the grey area of Intellectual Property, ownership isn’t always what you expect.

There are so many options for building a website!  Whether you come to an independent designer, use free tools, choose an add-on to an online directory listing, or pick an entry-level site package from a bulk supplier, ownership and control can vary.   We’ve seen a few businesses who’ve started simple and wanted to grow but hit problems.  Here are five things you need to check for your own protection:

1. Holding on to your domain name

If the domain name comes as part of the package, check the small print.  Search for the domain on WhoIs and see who owns it.  If it belongs to the site builder, or it’s simply a subdomain, then if you move you’ll lose your site address without the chance to redirect it to a new place.  If your name appears on the registration record, then you’re safe – and if it’s a domain you will automatically have a Nominet account to keep control.  Just make sure the email on your registration is up to date and remember to renew when it’s time!

2. Who owns site images?

Photographs and images on a website must be owned or properly licensed.  If you take the photograph yourself – perfect.  If you have a photographer take it for you, the photo copyright is theirs so ask for their permission to use it on your site.  If you find a nice looking picture on the internet, beware!  Use recognised photo sites such as Fotolia, Shutterstock, iStock, Getty and others who will charge a fee to license the image for your use on your website.  This could be a couple of quid – or significantly more, depending on the image.  You don’t want to end up breaching copyright, because while it’s easy to find an image online, it’s also easy for the owner to check where it’s being used, and it’s an expensive mistake to make.  This cautionary tale is a case in point.

3. What about the written content?

If you have access to a Content Management System which allows you to edit your content, then it’s yours.  Most sitebuilders are clear about this in their terms and conditions.  However, we’ve come across cases in the past where large businesses were knocking out hundreds of virtually identical sites with no access to editing tools: in this case the sitebuilder owned the content regardless of who wrote it, and businesses were exposed to legal action if copying it to a new site. This practice is thankfully disappearing, but it’s something we always check if replacing a packaged site.

4. Who owns the design?

Pulling together elements from a sitebuilder menu to make your site look good is not delivering a design you can own – if you reproduce it faithfully elsewhere, the sitebuilder could argue you have infringed their copyright. Similarly, when a professional designer takes the elements you want and turns them into a website format, with all the necessary bells, whistles, markup (the coding you see if you ‘view source’ on your site), optimisation and user experience considerations, they are using their knowledge and creativity to do this and the design is therefore their intellectual property. Check the terms and conditions of any website supplier (including us – see clause 3.16) and you will find this stated clearly, giving you a license for use.

5. Is the software underneath the site mine?

For the platform your site sits on, the company who built it will own the software – but that’s perfectly normal.  When you buy or download a software package like Windows do you ‘own’ it? No: you have a license to use it.  It’s the same with your website.  You do not own the background technology – that would prevent the builder using the same thing again – but you have a license to use it.  The more common that underlying software is, the more protection you have – there are plenty of independent website businesses working with WordPress, Joomla, Drupal, Magento and other content management systems who will be competent to work on your site and update it as required.

In a nutshell:

Ownership is not the same as control – take control of your domain name and your content, and you’ll be well protected.