Website Ownership - What You Should Know

U.S. Copyright law clearly states that the creator of a work owns the rights to that work from the moment it's put into some tangible form.

If you hire a Web design firm as an independent contractor, that design firm owns all of the content and code that it creates. In a case such as this, the law treats the contractor as an "author" and/or "artist" and automatically grants them ownership of the work. Even if your business works together with a design firm on your website, the design firm can claim joint ownership of the site's design and content.

Original artwork, and any material object used to store a computer file containing original artwork, remains the property of the artist unless it is specifically purchased. It is distinct from the purchase of any reproduction rights.1 All transactions shall be in writing.

Your contract or agreement with your design firm may include a clause that assigns the ownership of the firm's work to your business. This Assignment Agreement must be in writing — oral copyright assignments aren't enforceable. Most standard Web development agreements assign the copyright to the client upon final payment, but you should always make sure the assignment clause gives you complete, unquestioned ownership over every aspect of your website.

There is a notable exception to this rule: If one of your employees builds your website, then your business owns that work. If you're not sure whether a Web developer qualifies as an employee or as an independent contractor, play it safe and require them to sign a copyright assignment form.

Be certain to understand the policies of the design firm before you hire them.  Not all designers provide the copyright laws.  If you do not see their policy on their site, ask.  Get everything in writing.  If any question of ownership were to go to court, without a signed Assignment Agreement the designer is sure to win.