Who Owns My Website?

Scene: Two company owners walk into a Tesla dealership. One hands over $95,000 in cash and the other decides to have a 3-year payment plan. Both owners hop in their new car and drive out the lot.

SO…In the scenario above, who actually owns their brand new Tesla? Who owns it immediately once off the lot?

See, it is fairly simple: If you are making payments on something (does not matter what), you actually don’t OWN it yet. But, for some reason, this fairly simple concept gets confusing if you replace Tesla for a website. This confusion leads to a lot of pain for company owners, though.

Website Ownership Clause and How Company Owners get caught off-guard by it

Here is a situation that many company owners have come to me before: Company owner signs on with a cheap website designer or “reputable” marketing agency in order to improve your online presence and your branding. The plan that they are offering comes with a “free website” on some fancy “platform” that they created or the price is built into the monthly marketing payments so you don’t have to pay for the whole site upfront. From a surface view, this sounds great and a cost-effective way to grow your online presence, right?

WRONG!!! While it seems like a good way to help you get started, you are going to be in a whole of pain and frustration when you try to exit out of that agreement when you decide to grow your site or move to a specialized company that helps you with their results-oriented approach.

Point blank – you may not even realize that you are trapped like this until you attempt to make your transition and leave. Here are a few things that we have seen when company owners are in these situations:

  1. You cannot get to your website files or it is a huge fee for them to give them to you.
  2. If you stop paying the monthly payments, you risk having your website completely pulled down with no way to recover it since they have all of the website files (see the first point).
  3. Data and all of the analytics that you have been carefully curating to make your company soar…..well, those will all disappear, too.

That is not even the worst part. Yes, it gets worse. There is NOTHING that you can do about it since you signed a contract that gives away your website ownership rights in the fine print. This means that you are trapped by the ownership clause.

The Basics of Website Ownership

Bottom line, unless you specifically have a contract that says that you own your website, you do not own it.

Whooo…now that that is off my chest, let me clear some more stuff up for you.

You cannot…I repeat for the kids in the back…CANNOT “own” a website in the same way that you own a car because there are services that you are dependent on.

First and foremost, a website is completely dependent on it’s hosting provider, like GoDaddy or BlueHost. If GoDaddy, for example, goes down, your website will also go down.

Secondly, a website is dependent on the internet connection. If there is no internet then there is no website.

Oh, and your domain name….you do not own that really either. You pay the registrar for allowing you to exclusively use it. Think about it for a minute. If you stop paying GoDaddy for your domain, you will lose your domain. This is why you have to renew your “ownership” of the domain every year.

So if you don’t own your site and you don’t own your domain then what CAN you own outright with no craziness attached?

Well, you can outright own the components that make your website what it is, like the design, the content and the code BUT…you must make sure that it’s written that way in your contract with your web designer.

Why would the web designer own my stuff?

Because copyright law states that “the creator of the website’s design and content automatically becomes the legal owner of said assets.” What you outright own is the text you give them (if any) and the photos that you took (if any). Once your website is built, you are given the license to use it unless it states otherwise in the fine print of your contract.

What should I Own and What will I never own

This is a huge part of understanding what your investment is all about. Understanding the parts of your website and what you should see in an ownership contract and what you should legally* be able to claim as yours.

You should own the following things and here is why:

  1. Your domain name – I get asked all the time “where is my domain?” It is shocking how many people do not know. But I digress. So technically, you do not own your domain ever because you pay for it yearly or monthly to use it exclusively. However, you can (and should) secure the rights to it apart of your web design company in a lot of cases. The only case that you can have someone manage it for you is if you and the company managing it sign a contract stating that you “own” the rights to the domain and can take it at any time. This is what we do to help company owners who just want help managing it all in one place. We do this on a case to case bases though and make sure that you know you own it and I will not hold it from you ever.
  2. The design and visuals on your website – You should own most of this. For example, you cannot own the color purple BUT you CAN own the design aspects of your website that use the color purple. Your website builder should provide some sort of clause in your contract that transfers ownership upon payment and project completion.
  3. The content on your website – Straight up…you should own this. You should make sure that your website designer allows all content (even if written by them) to be owned by you after the completion of the project. Typically, this is a question that you need to ask before you sign anything.
  4. All of the HTML, CSS, and JavaScript on your site – This means all of the code stuff and it is tricky. Many websites use similar scripts and open source code which means that you do not own those. You should, however, own the control over your website’s specific CSS, HTML, and JavaScript files.
  5. The source code – While it sounds like something from the Matrix, it is definitely something that you should one within reason. Many elements that are foundational to your site source code are open source code for the building blocks of most websites. This makes it close to impossible to get to 100% ownership for this. You should, however, be given exclusive rights to your custom programming and any files associated with your code.
  6. The CMS platform – You do not own this and will not typically own this. CMS stands for a content management system, such as WordPress. These content management systems are owned by whoever owns the system which is typically not you. For example, WordPress CMS is owned by WordPress. WordPress alls you to use it but you do not own any part of it. You do control the ability to choose what CMS you want to use for your website. You will definitely want to make sure it is a CMS that allows transfers, that they can easily do it, and whatever you use is not proprietary so you are stuck unless you rebuild your site.

* Reminder: I am not an attorney so my daughter, who is 6 years old is just as qualified to give you legal advice as I am. If you are concerned, please have your legal counsel review your website contract and help tell you your rights.

Okay so that it all of the background but how do I find out who owns my website’s domain name?

Short version: Go here and type in your website address. This will allow you to look at the registrant information. If you need help, ASK someone! Do not assume or dismiss this because it is important!!

Longer explanation: If you go here, you will be able to see different entries that will provide you important information. You will one of the three entries below and then you can act on whatever you need to do.

  1.  You, your business, or someone at your business is listed as the contact information for the registrant contact section – HOORAY! You own your domain.
  2. The contact information for the registrant is listed as private – This means that you or someone else owns it and your contact information is private and hidden. If you are not sure if you are the owner that is hidden behind the privacy, then do some recon and find out. It is totally worth it, I promise.
  3. The website designer, marketing agency, or someone is listed as the registrant contact. – This means that you probably do NOT own it and you should call whoever is listed and work it out
Once you figure this out, then it is time to figure out your contract and see what you’ve missed and what could cause you pain.

When you are reading your contracts, it should be fairly straightforward. You are not a Fortune 500 company yet so it should be fairly basic and understandable. If your contract looks like a crazy sci-fi book about aliens on another planet, then I would advise you to get the contract to a lawyer so that they can help you de-jargon it for you. It will be worth it in the end, I promise. You will have peace of mind that your investment and business are okay.

There are tons of scams and flashy marketing traps that you must beware of. Here are some of the big ones that you can watch out for.

  1. Start for Free
  2. Low monthly payments
  3. Lease-to-own

All of the above phrases are marketing “tricks” to prey on the people who are trying to be be careful with the money and typically have lower budgets or lower understanding of all website things.

Sidebar: There is a monthly cost that is necessary for your website to keep your site up to date, fresh and optimized, and hosted. This is not apart of ownership though. This is a service that some agencies and web designers will provide for monthly revenue. This has nothing to do with ownership though and if they say that they do, ASK MORE QUESTIONS.

Okay, back to the facts… If you are paying a low monthly payment to eventually own your website (and there is no mention of hosting in your contract) then you are typically paying to lease your site on their proprietary platform to host your site. You will most likely have to pay a fee or rebuild your whole site if you want to ever cancel. It is like leasing a car. There is the potential of ownership but typically you drive it around and then upgrade and then drive that around and then upgrade. You never own anything in this cycle. It is the same thing that some companies do with websites.

Best practice and thing to remember is two things which I am sure that you have heard before

  1. There is no such thing as a free website
  2. If a sales pitch sounds too good to be true then 95% of the time it is and you should run.
Wait….so what is a proprietary platform and why is it a trap?

So this is one of those dirty phrases that get around in web design if you do not know what to look for. A proprietary platform for websites is a tool that was created and owned by a marketing agency or software company. So what happens if your website is designed by one of these types of companies? Well, then you are required to host it on their platform. That’s cool. Why does it to be like it is that a bad thing? Well, the problem is that the proprietary platform is typically not compatible with other platforms, so if you ever want to switch to a new provider, you can’t take your site with you. This is how they trap you. It is not worth all of the trouble, cost, and time to fight or rebuild so people just deal with it and stay.

Okay, what other jargon do I have to watch for?

Well, if you see anything that says, “ownership condition date” then RUN. An easy way to explain this is that you only become the owner of the website after a fixed period AND according to a specific set of conditions are met. This is like my husband saying, “Of course I will marry you, BUT you have to maintain a supermodel figured it out that because for the next ten years AND you’ll have to pay me a lot of alimony if you cannot and I get rid of you for the newest model.” Wowzers!! That’s rough and crazy if you put it that way. It is not always that rough for websites but you will typically have to pay a buttload to cancel before the conditions are met and the date they say in the contract. This is always crap that is in the fine print so make sure you read the fine print before you sign anything.

So… what happens if I do lose my website and have to start over?

There are many issues and pains that you get from losing your site completely or losing the rights to your site in general.

  1. You just lost your whole investment meaning your time, money, and everything else you put into it.
  2. Your SEO ranking and authority will be lost. This means that when you build a new website, all of your rankings and authority that you built up are completely gone. You will be starting from scratch especially since domain age also has an impact on your ranking. Typically, the older your site then the more “authority” you have. While this is the theory and makes sense, there are a lot of other factors that impact your SEO as well.
  3. You will lose all of your historical analytical data when you start again. While this can happen even if you actually own all of the rights to your site, this is something that will happen if your site if something…anything gets turned off and/or lost. For example, if a former web developer or anyone you worked with honestly refused to release your historical data then you are stuck. There are even other agencies that have been known to simply wiped EVERYTHING when an old website was taken down and do not hold any records of it. The only thing you can do at that point with this particular issue is to deal with it and start over.

I am sure that you have now potentially discovered that you don’t own your website. So here is what you do about it!

First, if you just discovered that you do not own everything that you thought that you did, there are four ways to handle it.

  1. Go by some Cherry Garcia ice cream and throw a pity party. It sucks to be misled but you know what? Now, that you are aware of it, you can start taking action. So finish your ice cream and go start taken names and kicking butts.
  2. Hire a shark of a lawyer and take whoever you can to court for ownership. I do not recommend this option at all though. You will probably not win and it was a waste of money that you could just use as an investment for a website that you do own in the future.
  3. Reach out and find a reputable vendor (like Rainstone Digital since I will never hold anything hostage, promise). This vendor can work on rebuilding an identical version of your website based on the visuals and files you do own. Ask me how! It is possible!
  4. Reach out to a reputable vendor and have them build the site of your dreams without using anything that you had on the old site. You can make this is epic and even better than before. Ask me how! I can totally help you.
So that is how to move forward right when you find out but what about the future contracts that you sign. Well, make sure that you follow the tips below before you sign any kind of web contract.
  1. Be bold and straight up – The first thing that you should ask the person you are trying to work with is whether or not you will actually own your website. Be very up-front about it and demand an answer. If the person gives you some vague response or starts saying something along the lines of “Yes, after a certain period of time,” then red flags should be flashing in your mind and you need to dig deeper with them. Dig into the questions and ask about whether you will own your source code as well. Why? Because if you cannot take the websites source code with you when you leave the agreement, you will not be able to see your awesome websites again unless you rebuild it again.
  2. Ask about monthly hosting of the site – If they say that hosting is included or you are not consulted about it, you could be just leasing a spot on their proprietary platform and will not be able to leave with your site. Ask about hosting and management options that they have. If they do not give you straightforward answers then ask more questions. Make sure you know what you are getting every month. If they do not tell you, do not use them for hosting. Reach out to someone like Rainstone Digitial who can help care and protect the site for you every month with our managed hosting plans.
  3. Ask how much your site with cost – Make sure that before you sign anything that you ask for the total cost of the site and the payment structure of owning your site. This is the best way to see if there may be hidden fees that they are being vague about. If they are going to be vague, then do not sign anything.
  4. Actually read the whole document that you are signing – Even if you are not going to read it, hire a lawyer to read it and translate it for you. As the owner of a business, you have to take responsibility for your site instead of delegating the whole responsibility to other employees. It makes sense to have that desire since you have no time BUT it will be worth it in the end. Think about it…the price for not reading it will be a LOT higher than the cost of taking some time to read and comprehend your contract to make sure your company is not getting screwed over.

Yikes, that was a lot to take in. If you do not remember anything else, please remember that your website is one of your most important business assets and investments. It does so many things for you such as being the source of data to profile your clients, houses analytics you need to track your business success, online sales representative, and it is a huge monument to your brand. It is your growth pipeline so make sure that you own it and are taking care of it so it can be a sales-generating powerhouse for you.

If you need any help with ANYTHING mentioned above or if you want to explore options for new hosting or building a new website, please reach out to me. We are one of the good companies that will help you and if you ever do have to leave Rainstone Digital, you will be able to take it all with you, I promise!