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Two business owners walk into a Ferrari dealership.
One forks over a cool $250k in cash. The other signs a 5-year payment agreement. Both drive out of the lot in brand-news cars.
Which business owner actually (and immediately) owns his Ferrari?
It’s a simple concept: If you’re making payments on something, you don’t technically OWN it yet. But, somehow that simple concept gets muddled when we switch out Ferraris for websites.
The Website Ownership Clause—And How it Catches Business Owners Off-Guard
Here’s a common situation many business owners—and you might be included—find themselves in: You sign on with a cheap website designer or seemingly reputable marketing agency to improve your web presence. The plan comes with a “free website” on a fancy “proprietary platform” or the price is built into monthly marketing payments. On the surface, it sounds like a smart, cost-effective way to grow your online presence, right?
Wrong. While it might seem like a good way to start, you’re in for a rude awakening when you try to exit out of that agreement in favor of a more robust or results-oriented approach.
And here’s the thing—you may not even realize you’ve been trapped until you try to leave. What we usually see happen is when you want access to your website files, you’re hit with a huge fee or a point-blank refusal. If you stop paying monthly fees, you risk having your website pulled with no way to recover it. Oh, and all that data and analytics you’ve been so carefully curating? That will disappear, too.
The worst part? There’s nothing you can do about it, because you technically signed away your website ownership rights in the contract’s fine-print.
You’ve been trapped by the ownership clause.
Website Ownership 101: The Basics
Look, unless your contract specifically states that you own your website, you don’t.
Now that I’ve got that off my chest, I should clear something up:
You can’t “own” a website in the same way that you own a car. First, a website is completely dependent on it’s hosting provider—for example, GoDaddy. If GoDaddy goes down, your website will, too. Your website is also dependent on the internet connection—no internet, no website. Oh, and your domain name? You don’t really “own” that, either; you pay GoDaddy (or whatever hosting provider you’re using) a yearly fee to have exclusive rights to use it. You stop paying, you lose the domain name. Catch my drift?
What you CAN own outright are the componants that make your website what it is, like the design, the content, and the code—but you need to make sure it’s written like that in your web design contract.
Because copyright law states that the creator of the website’s design and content automatically becomes the legal owner of said assets. What you own outright is the text you give them (if any) and photos you took. After your website is created, you are given a license to use it—unless the designer states otherwise in the fine-print of your contract.
Website Ownership Contracts: What You Should Own, and What You Never Will
Understanding that your website is made of parts, below are the basics of what’s in a website ownership contract—and what you should legally* claim as yours.
- Your domain name – One of the most common questions I get is “who owns my website domain?” Well, technically…not you. You won’t ever “own” your domain name. You pay your hosting provider a yearly fee (or monthly, depending on your provider) to obtain exclusive rights to it. However, you can (and should) secure rights to it apart from your web design company.
- The design and visuals of your website – You should own this—within reason. For example, you can’t own the color blue, but you can own design aspects on your website that use the color blue. Your website creator should provide a clause in your contract that transfers ownership upon payment and project completion.
- Your website’s content — You should own this. You should make sure your website designer allows all content—even if it was written by them—to be owned by you after completion of the project.
- The source code – You should own this—within reason. Many foundational elements of a website’s source code are open building blocks for most websites, making it almost impossible to guarantee 100% ownership. At the minimum, however, you should be given exclusive rights to your custom programming and any files associated with your code.
- The CMS system – You don’t own this. A content management system like WordPress is owned by, well, WordPress. What you should control is the ability to choose your CMS and ask for a website that can be easily transferred from one CMS to another.
* I am not an attorney, and am as qualified to give you legal advice as my 10-year-old nephew. Have your own legal counsel review your website contract and help inform you of your specific rights.
How to Find Out Who Owns Your Website’s Domain Name
If you’re not sure who claims the ownership rights on your domain, go here, type in your website, and look at the registrant contact information. You should see one of three entries:
- You, your business, or someone at your business is listed as the registrant contact – This means you own your domain name.
- The registrant contact is listed as private – This means it could be you or someone else, but the contact information is private. It’s worth it to do some recon on who exactly the owner is.
- The registrant contact is listed as your website designer, marketing agency, or someone else – This means you need to call whoever is listed ASAP and see what’s up.
After you know who owns the domain name, it’s time to dig into your contract and see what else you’re missing.
How to Translate the Legal Jargon in Website Contracts
Unless you’re a Fortune 500 company, your website agreement should be fairly straightforward. If it looks more like a John Grisham novel than a website contract, I recommend you shell out the extra cash to have a lawyer de-jargon it for you.
There are a few legal terms and marketing pitches you can watch out for:
The Flashy Marketing Trap
“Start for free!” “Low monthly payments!” “Lease-to-own!”
These are all marketing pitches that prey on your savvy money-saving skills. While it is necessary for web design and marketing agencies to charge small monthly or quarterly fees to keep your website updated, fresh, and optimized, you should be wary about “low” monthly ownership payments. If you’re paying low monthly payments to own you website—and there’s no mention of hosting in the contract—you are most likely paying to lease a spot on their proprietary platform (see the next section) to host your website. You will most likely have to pay a fee if you want to cancel.
Rule of thumb—no website is really free. If a marketing pitch seems too good to be true, it usually is.
The Proprietary Platform Trap
“Proprietary platform.” That can be a nasty phrase in web design if you don’t know what you’re getting into. A proprietary website platform was created by and is owned by a marketing or software company. What happens is if one of these companies designs your website, you’re required to host it on their platform. Problem is, websites built on proprietary platforms usually aren’t compatible with other hosting platforms (like WordPress), so if you ever want to switch to a new provider, you won’t be able to take your full, working site with you. It’s like gaining access to a cool new club that won’t let you take your wallet when you leave.
The Ownership Condition Date Clause
Read those words. Ownership Condition Date. Put them together and you’ve got a clause that states you will become the owner of your website after a fixed period of time and according to specific set of conditions. Think, “I’ll marry you, but only if you maintain a beach body with 8 percent body fat for the next ten years—and you’ll have to pay me a buttload of alimony if you can’t.”
Typically, contracts that include this verbiage charge you an arm and a leg for cancelling before that condition date is up.
The Dangers of Losing Licensing Rights to Your Website
There are two serious dangers of losing the rights to your website:
- A loss in SEO rankings and authority: When you have to build a new website, all those rankings and authority you built up are *poof* gone. Then there’s your domain age. While domain age is a topic of debate in the SEO world, it does have an impact on your rankings. The older a website is, theoretically, the more authority it has.
- A loss of all historical analytical data: This can happen even if you DO own the rights to your website. We’ve had cases where the former digital marketing agency refused to release historical data, and others where the data was simply wiped when the old website was taken down.
Don’t Own Your Website? Here’s What to Do About It—And How to Avoid an Ownership Headache in the Future
First off, if you’ve just discovered that you don’t own your website, you have four options:
- Buy a gallon of ice cream and cry at your desk.
- Hire a shark of a lawyer and take those suckers to court (Don’t really do this. You probably wouldn’t win and would waste a bunch of money in the process).
- Contact a reputable vendor (our web design team won’t ever hold your website hostage) and attempt to rebuild an identical version of your website based on visuals and the files you do own.
- Contact a reputable vendor and have them start from scratch building you a newer, BETTER website.
Before Signing Your Next Website Contract
Follow these tips before you sign your next web design contract:
- Talk about the elephant in the room – The very first thing you should bring up to a sales representative is whether or not you will own your website up-front. If they give you a vague answer or start saying, “Yes, after a certain period of time,” it’s a red-flag. Drill into them about whether you will own your source code. This is CRUCIAL because if you can’t take the website source code with you upon exiting the agreement, you’ll never see your beautiful website again (unless you rebuild it from scratch)
- Ask about hosting – If hosting is included and you are not consulted about it, it could be that you’re leasing a spot on their proprietary platform—meaning you can’t take a fully functioning site with you when you leave.
- Ask how much your website will cost – Before you sign on the dotted line, ask about the total cost and payment structure of owning your website. This is a way for you to see behind the curtain at all those fees they may be hiding.
- Really READ the contract – If you aren’t a reader, then hire a lawyer to translate it for you. As a business owner, you need to take responsibility for your website instead of delegating it to your IT or marketing team. I get that you don’t have time—but this is one thing that’s worth taking the time to dig through. The price of not reading it could be FAR higher than the price of taking an hour out of your day to make sure your company isn’t getting screwed.
Your website is arguably your number one business asset. It’s the source of data you use to profile your clients and of the analytics you need to track your business’ success, it’s your online sales representative, and it’s a monument to your brand. In short, you should approach it like your growth pipeline. Make sure you own it, make sure you’re tending to it, and make sure you’re building it up as a lead and sales-generating powerhouse. If you need help with any of the above, or if you want to explore new website options, contact us. We’re the good guys, and if you ever leave us, you’ll take it all with you.
About The Author: Betsy is the social media lead and a digital marketing expert with Blue Corona. When she’s not managing Blue Corona's digital content campaigns she’s urban exploring, hiking with her dog, or teaching horseback riding lessons. Twitter: @educatedbets
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