Who owns the intellectual property rights to your website?
17 January 2017
It is easy to think that once you have purchased your domain name, written your content and hired a web developer to implement your designs, the rights to your website will belong to you. However, very often this will not be the case.
Intellectual property is something unique that a person has created. Intellectual property rights exist to help the owners of intellectual property assert their rights in respect of their creations and to stop others copying or stealing them.
Intellectual property will exist in every website, whether it be in respect of the logo used, the text that appears on individual webpages or the coding which determines the way the website is laid out and formatted.
Broadly, there are several different categories of intellectual property that are usually found on websites and it is important to know who owns what in the event of a dispute.
Your website will be full of copyrighted material. Copyright is an automatic right which the author or creator of material is entitled to assert unless they waive the right to do so. As such, the authors of the text on your website will own the copyright, as will the creators of any audio recordings, photographs or pictures, unless you have agreed otherwise.
If an employee creates the copyrighted material in the ordinary course of their work, then the business will be the copyright owner. However, if you have hired a subcontractor to create this material they will be the copyright owner. To ensure you remain in control of the text which appears on your website it is important that as part of the pre-contract negotiations you get the subcontractor to agree to transfer the copyright ownership to your business once the work has been satisfactorily completed.
Your domain name, company name and your logo could all be registered as trade marks, if they meet certain criteria. There are benefits to registering your trade marks, including the fact that other businesses will be prevented from using the same or similar names, strap lines, slogans or logos. This is important as trade marks are often seen as a badge of validity which suggest that your brand is trusted and established. By registering trade marks you can also ensure that your business’s name, and therefore its reputation, is protected in law against competitors who might try to imitate you.
Business owners are often surprised to learn that they do not actually own their domain name but have the exclusive licence to use it, in much the same way as a telephone number. Because of this it is important that domain names are registered and that the registration details are kept on file by the business to ensure that registration can be renewed as and when required. There should be no problem if registration is undertaken by the business itself but problems can arise where an external agency is used and the registration details are not transferred to the brand owner.
What you own on your website and what you have the rights to will depend on what you agreed in your contract with your web developer. You need to review the terms and conditions of the agency you are using and pay careful attention to the intellectual property clauses.
The visual design of a bespoke website should be yours if you have commissioned it but this may not always be the case.
If your website is an adaptation of a pre-existing or template layout then you are unlikely to own any rights to it.
If your website has been built on a content management system, such as WordPress, then you will not have any rights to the platform on which your website has been built; similarly you will not own the server on which your website is hosted.
Careful thought needs to be given to the ownership of intellectual property rights in coding, content and data.
Disputes very often occur when a web developer delays the provision of the site or where the site does not meet the customer’s expectations or where the customer wants to move the site to another web developer. Often in these circumstances the customer will not pay and the web developer then refuses to pass on the website source codes or takes control of the domain name, which results in deadlock.
What your contract should cover
When disputes arise, it is often due to the specification of the website having been poorly defined in the contract because of inadequate communication between the customer and the web developer. As a minimum, your contract with your web developer should:
- cover what you expect your website developer to produce, with specifications;
- set out the timescales within which this should happen;
define the point at which the site will be deemed to have been accepted by you;
- clarify who will own any resulting intellectual property rights;
- set out the arrangements for source codes;
- explain what will happen in the event the contract is terminated; and
- set out what should happen in the event of a dispute.
Hosting, technical support and maintenance may also be included in the contract, but this depends on what you want from your web developer once the site has been built.
The contents of this article are for the purposes of general awareness only. They do not purport to constitute legal or professional advice. The law may have changed since this article was published. Readers should not act on the basis of the information included and should take appropriate professional advice upon their own particular circumstances.