Who owns the copyright on my website?

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.

Don't let your web developer host your website

Never let the developer building your website host it for you too. Never. End of story. We get it — you need a new website, you're told they'll take care of everything. You don't need to worry about a thing. Sounds great, right?

An unfortunate, but common tale

The most common complaint we hear from website owners is they feel like they don't have control over their own website. They don't have access to any information and have never been provided with login credentials for their host. When they request something, it takes too long to receive it. Ask for a simple change and they are faced with an excessive quote for what instinctively feels like very little work. Often website owners will end up paying far more in "minor requests" than the cost to build the entire website. Worst of all, if they want to move their website elsewhere, they can sometimes be faced with leaving a passive-aggressive provider that plays hard-ball and makes the transition slow and difficult.

We understand. You have no idea how often we hear this. We can almost predict it from the frustration in a potential client's voice. It doesn't need to be this way.

Types of website hosting

To understand better options, it's important to get familiar with some of the basics of web hosting, including the common types. Here's a breakdown of the differences between shared, dedicated and VPS hosting.

Shared hosting

Shared hosting is the most common form of hosting and is offered most frequently to new website owners. As the name suggests, when you use shared hosting you are sharing resources, like CPU, RAM and storage space. It's a cost-effective option because the server resources are shared amongst all users on that server. You're probably all paying the same fee even though your usage may differ significantly.

The downside of shared hosting is that if another website on your server receives a spike in traffic, it can impact the performance of your website. Less reputable providers may also overburden a server with too many websites and you may find that your website performance leaves a lot to be desired. Shared hosting is typically provided as part of a package from a website developer. Often the server is owned by them, or the server is owned by another party but the web developer has full administrative rights over that server. This is a common scenario where your web developer has control over your web server — but it's your website, so wouldn't you want control over the web server it resides on too?

Dedicated hosting

Dedicated hosting is at the opposite end of the spectrum compared to shared hosting. Rather than sharing resources, you have one server that is dedicated to your website only. Sound expensive? It is. On the upside, you have full control over your resources and can customise everything to meet your individual needs, but the flip side is that it costs a lot more.

VPS hosting

Wouldn't it be great if there was something between shared hosting and dedicated hosting that had the benefits of both? Introducing VPS (Virtual Private Server) hosting. VPS hosting sits on the same hardware as other users just like shared hosting, with one major difference — your domain is the only one allocated to your particular virtual compartment. The means you get your own operating system, dedicated storage space, scalable CPU, scalable RAM and bandwidth. In short, you get all the benefits of dedicated hosting without the need to pay for a dedicated server. And the price? You might be surprised to know that VPS hosting is about the same as what you'd pay for shared hosting — possibly even less. Plus, you can have your own dedicated VPS service all under your management without being under the thumb of your web developer.

Maintain control with independent hosting

Be wary of cheap shared hosting services bundled as part of your website development. You're probably not going to get the best performance out of your website and, if you decide to change providers, you may have difficulties getting the information needed to migrate your hosting seamlessly. Sharing server resources with who-knows-how-many other websites is never a good idea, especially when you can have dedicated server resources for a comparable price with VPS hosting.

Hosting recommendations

We recommend the following minimum requirements for your hosting:

  1. Use an independent, reputable and globally recognised hosting provider like Amazon Web Services (our recommendation), Microsoft Azure or Google Cloud. Don't use hosting servers that are owned or primarily controlled by your web developer.
  2. The hosting master user account, or owner account, is held by your business, registered under an email address controlled by your business.
  3. Keep your username and password secure. A password manager like Dashlane is excellent for encrypted password security and never forgetting passwords.
  4. Ensure your web developer has separate login credentials. Don't ever share usernames or passwords. It's not only a very bad idea, but it's also a breach of obligations to your hosting provider.
  5. The login for your web developer has permissions sufficient to perform their role — nothing more.
  6. You can remove any user (including the web developer) at any time and add new users as required.

Your web developer can implement a master user account on your behalf and get everything set up using temporary credentials. Before paying for your site, ensure the master user account is transferred to your email address and you have selected your own password. This will ensure that nobody can take ownership of your hosting account.