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I’ll need to give you the usual “I’m not a lawyer” disclaimer here so none of this should be taken as legal advice

So, you’ve just paid for your website. That means you own all the copyright to the source code and the design, right? Almost certainly not. Here's why:

Copyright is automatically granted to the entity who creates the work at the time of its creation. You do not need to place a copyright symbol (©) on anything to activate the copyright though people do do it as it serves as a reminder the work is not in the public domain.

An exception to the above rule is if you work for a company or are subcontracting for a company under a contract that explicitly states you don't own the copyright. This is known as “works made for hire” and in such instances the copyright belongs to the employing entity, not the author of the work.

So what are you getting in exchange for what you paid? By default, the software and other files are simply being licensed to you for use as a website. This might sound odd but chances are you've done this kind of thing time and time again outside of the world of web design. For example, it’s exactly the same when you buy a music CD. It would be ridiculous to think you own the rights to the music just because you bought a copy of it — you’re really just being licensed a copy that you can use on a personal basis. The license will have restrictions too such as you can’t copy it for other people, play it in public places or create derivative works from it.

If you have paid to have a site developed the developer or development company would have to explicitly sign copyright over to you for you to own it. If this isn’t done the authoring entity automatically owns the copyright. Often, developers won’t stipulate the terms by which the code can be used so if it came to any sort of legal battle I guess there’d be a bit of a grey area there as to what assumed acceptable usage is. One of the many advantages of having a web design contract is that is should state in writing what your rights are.

I have a copyright notice at the top of all my server-side source files that reflect the restrictions laid out in my contract recognising me as the author. It licenses it to the client in perpetuity for use on a single test site and a single live site. I allow them to change the code so long as I am still recognised as one of the authors. I do, however, prohibit the code from being used on additional sites and state that it cannot be distributed, resold or deployed on additional servers or domains without my permission. Furthermore, the code cannot be published or made publicly available in any way.

I feel this is a fair way to operate as it means the client can develop the site with a third party (i.e. they’re not tied in to me) but they cannot use it for anything other than the site it was originally made for.

The design works in the same way. If you get a logo designed then the designer actually owns the copyright to it and licenses it to you for use in your branding. I think it’s a little more complicated here though. If you reuse code for something (let’s say a drop down menu) you could reuse it for another client but style it totally differently. The re-use of design elements, however, could result in visual similarities between two brands and the latter company could be accused of passing off as the former company. In this instance I would guess the designer is accountable for copyright infringement. It would really depend on what is reused and in what way. For example, if you reused a logo but changed the company name I would guess the designer would be in trouble. However, reusing something like a button would be okay so long as it doesn't contain any trademarks, etc.

So, don’t assume you own the copyright to your website. Before you go ahead and commission a website be sure to discuss this topic with your developer.

Tim Bennett is a web designer and developer. He has a First Class Honours degree in Computing from Leeds Metropolitan University and currently runs his own one-man web design company, Texelate.