You just had the perfect website built for your business and you handed over a sum of money in return. You’re probably thinking that now it’s yours there are no limitations to what you can do with it. But this is not entirely true.

In the case of a web developer, ownership resides in their code. They own the rights to any work they create and deserve credit for being innovative through execution — whether it be writing in programming languages or designing interfaces.

The truth about how websites are built

Don’t worry, source code may not always be a problem. It’s often the case that websites are built by combining many different components already written by others — this makes perfect sense for most businesses. There is no point in writing new code to perform an existing function when there is a reliable and widely used set of pre-existing code you can license easily.

This is not a new concept — and it’s perfectly normal in the technology industry. Think your phone was developed entirely by Apple? Wrong! Apple’s iPhone is a patchwork of different technologies bundled together and sold as one product. When you take a look under the legal section in General Settings, there are hundreds of licenses for software that have been licensed from other organisations.

In reality, it’s not just Apple who has these licence agreements — many companies do this to create their products on top of an already existing foundation made out of previously-developed technology. This keeps costs low while still making sure they can expand easily when needed without having to start everything from scratch each time new features come around.

What am I actually paying for?

You might be thinking, “If a web developer is just combining lots of existing code that has already been written, what am I actually paying for?” That’s a fair question. The reality is that your website would have been a lot more expensive had every single line of code been written from scratch. That’s a bit like starting a rental car company and building every vehicle yourself.

Licensed code generally provides some form of useful common functionality, like sending an email. A web developer is still responsible for the layout, design and looks of your site, technical and standards compliance, performance enhancements, capacity, user experience, brand alignment, cross-device compatibility, basic search engine optimisation and pretty much everything else that goes into building a website.

Like almost every type of digital technology, your website will be assembled using at least some code that is licenced. You are granted a right to use that code on your website, although you’ll never actually own it — doing so would prevent the person who wrote it from letting others use it too.

The dark side of copyright disputes

Copyright potentially becomes an issue when your web developer has written custom source code specifically for your website. In this case, the developer retains ownership of that code. Often there is no clarity between web developers and their clients around whether any custom source code will be written and, if so, what the ownership or licencing arrangements will be. Disagreements often arise if you want another party to finish the website or maintain it in the long term.

Protecting your interests

To avoid any potential disagreements, confirm whether the developer will be writing custom source code for your website. If they are, it’s useful to ensure you have an assignment agreement or an express licensing agreement in place that allows you to use the content you have paid for.

The lawyers at LegalVision have put together an article that explains website copyright ownership in more detail.