So you’ve just had a shiny new website built for your business and you’ve handed over a sum of money in return. Let’s face some reality here – it’s your website now, so you can do whatever you want, right? Actually, no, that’s not entirely correct.

Generally, the owner of the copyright will be the person who created the work. In the case of a web developer, that work will likely be the source code, and ownership of that code remains with the developer.

The truth about how websites are built

Don’t panic –  source code may not always be an issue. Often a website will be developed by combining many different components that have already been written by others. For most businesses, this makes a lot of sense. There’s no point writing new code to perform a function when there’s already a reliable and widely used set of code that can be licenced from someone else. This is not a new concept – and it’s perfectly normal in the technology industry. Think your iPhone was developed entirely by Apple? Think again. If you take a look under the Legal & Regulatory section of your iPhone’s General Settings, you’ll see literally hundreds of legal notices for software that has been licenced from other organisations. In reality, your phone is actually a patchwork of many different technologies bundled together and sold as a single product.

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 common useful 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.

The dark side of copyright disputes

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.

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.

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