Imagine that one day after you've successfully launched your Internet business and you decide to browse the web and do some basic research on your competitors. In a flash, you find a website that is directly in competition with your company and the website is similar to the website you paid hundreds of dollars to get developed in jokerstash. You're quite upset and your first thought is to call the phone , and to threaten webmasters with legal action. But wait it's possible that you or your company may not actually "own" the copyrights to your website or any other elements!
Who Owns Your Website Under Copyright Laws?
While you may have ownership of the domain name and contents on your website the rights to own the website design and separate website elements may reside with the creator. If that is the case you're only provided with an implied non-exclusive right to make use of your website and the website elements you have designed for you or your business.
If you've hired a designer or other third-party to design or create your website, he or she may legally hold the copyright to your website. In the context of United States copyright law, creators are presumed owners of the copyright on the work they create. That means that the person who creates the various aspects of your website will be assumed to be the owner of the copyright on those specific elements (the concept of distinct website elements is further discussed in the next section). If you're not the original creator of your website and each element of it is owned by you, the only way you are legally able to acquire exclusive ownership rights for your website is by obtaining a signed writing with the creator, transferring all rights to you. As per the requirements of the United States Copyright law, the transfer of rights exclusive to a copyrighted item must be written and executed by the person who owns the rights. If you use to use the expertise of an outside website designer, you will not have exclusive rights over the website or the specific elements of your site unless you sign an signed site development agreement that states this. There are also other important reasons to consider a web development agreement.
Separate Website Elements Ownership
If multiple individuals are involved in the creation of your website and their contributions are identifiable the website could have separate copyright owners for each distinct component. Also, the distinct elements of your website could be owned by the person who developed those elements. For instance, there is a copyright in the design or the template for your website (the general "look and feel"of the site), and there are separate copyrights in the content contained on the website, including text, images, graphics video. Images and other elements such as headers are distinct elements of a website that make up the overall layout. If the website designer created each element separately and not just the template, he or she would likely hold the copyright to each of them.
Together, the overall appearance as well as the feel site's design can be protected "trade dress" when the design is distinct enough. It is a new area of Internet law where no clear and uniform guidelines are in place. However all elements downloaded from the web are publicly available in the event that these elements do not contain copyright restrictions. If any of these elements have been created by you, like your logo, your image, animations, etc. then you own the rights to the specific and distinct elements of your website.
However, you must be aware that any photographs you provide may actually be the property of the photographer who took the photos. The photographer would be considered as the person who wrote that "work". If you don't have ownership rights through some contractual arrangement when photographs or images were made for you The photographer will likely own the photos.
Another unique element is the content on your site. If it's been designed by you, you own the copyright to the content. But, it's not simply the text that appears in a visual manner on the screen. The way in which text is formatted and presented in the format of HTML or VRML codes are also covered. If your website designer developed the coding, the code, in contrast from the text in itself, may belong to the designer. Similarly, the manner in how the designer of your website has created the hyper linking on your site could be the work of the designer.
The fact is, you may be the owner of the text, however the designer may own the way that the text is arranged and coded on your website. The key here is to sign a written development agreement that transfers all of these rights to you or your business. Otherwise, it may not be apparent who owns your website!
This article was composed by Philip A. Nicolosi, J.D. Philip A. Nicolosi, J.D. Nicolosi provides legal services through his law firm, Phil Nicolosi Law, P.C., focusing on small and startup legal matters, Internet tech law as well as business transaction.
Mr. Nicolosi is a trusted advisor to numerous startups as well as small to medium sized businesses. This includes representation on many different legal matters relating to business, such as business organization, corporate/LLC governance, regulatory law contract and transaction law and most other matters outside of litigation. Mr. Nicolosi provides guidance with eCommerce, Internet marketing and technology-related legal matters. He also helps start-up tech companies with seed financing, venture capital and exit transactions.