Who Owns Your Website? Can it be held hostage?
In the 20+ years I have been freelancing, I have had dozens of people contact me saying that their webmaster / web designer / web development company is holding their website hostage. Sometimes this is true. But sometimes they have agreed to allow this to happen without realizing it.
What does it mean when someone says their website is held hostage?
It means that the site owner does not have complete control of their website. There are several different parts of a website this could affect.
- Domain name
- Web hosting account
- Website content management logins (i.e. WordPress administrator)
- Software licenses
- External accounts (.i.e. Facebook page, Google Business, Analytics…)
Who owns my website?
When hiring any company, understanding the terms of your agreement/web design contract is your responsibility. Ask questions before signing anything.
What does the web design contract say explicitly about who owns the website after its built?
I’ve reviewed some crazy contracts that people have signed stating that the web design company owns all of the code. You are essentially renting the website. When you quit paying a monthly maintenance fee, or want to move the site to a new web hosting company, they won’t give you the website code. Make sure you understand the terms of who owns the website – this means the content and the code. Make sure you understand what you are agreeing to or your website code may be held hostage.
No contract? This should be your first red flag. If you do not have documented terms of what you both agree to, there are bound to be problems.
Who owns my domain name?
Beyond the website code and content, another integral part of a website is the domain name. Registering a domain name and understanding how to point a domain name to your web host can be a confusing process. Often clients just ask me to do it for them.
When someone registers a domain name on your behalf, they own the domain name and are managing it for you. It is managed in their registrar account, and most likely registered in their/ the company name. It is most likely privately registered too. This means it is not publicly available to see who owns the domain name.
If your web designer owns your domain, they may give you a hard time to transfer the domain to you if you want to leave their services. If you are ending on bad terms, the web designer disappears, dies… you have no way to gain access or control of the domain name.
Again, make sure your contract clearly defines the terms of domain ownership and what happens when your work relationship ends. Regardless of the contract, some spiteful people will hold a domain hostage. Think twice before not registering it yourself.
Who is the web hosting provider?
Did you buy web hosting services through the designer/company that built your website, or did you buy it on your own and are giving access to the designer to build your site?
If you are buying hosting services through your web designer makes sure the contract states the following:
- You have your own hosting account with a separate login. You do not want your website to be an addon domain under their account.
- As soon as the hosting service is activated and paid for, you are provided with the login URL, username, and password for full access to your web hosting services.
How to access WordPress admin?
I am using WordPress (org) as an example because it is so popular, but I am referring to any content management system (CMS) software your website may be built with.
If you can not access WordPress admin, then it defeats the purpose of building a site with WordPress. The point of WordPress is for non developers to be able to easily manage the content on their website without the need of asking a developer/designer to make content related updates for them.
If your web designer won’t give you admin access and wants to charge you a monthly feed to maintain your website for you, they are essentially holding your website hostage.
Make sure your contract says you have administrator access to your WordPress or other CMS website.
Other services related to your website
Does your web design contract mention backups? When the project is first completed, do they provide a full website backup to you? If not ask them. If they won’t do this, don’t work with them. Once you pay for the website this should be provided to you.
Many web hosting companies market that backups are included. Make sure you understand what this means:
- what is included in the backup
- how often they are made
- what they guarantee
- how fast the backup can be restored
- is there a fee to restore a backup
You may be surprised.
Many hosts will provide backup tools inside of cPanel for you to be able to create a website backup yourself. I am seeing more hosts deactivating this option and then forcing you to buy this as a separate service. (ie GoDaddy, Bluehost) If this is the case, you need to make regular backups yourself, or depend on a web developer to do it for you.
If your web developer says they are making backups for you, how often do they do this? Do you have access to these backups available to you? (ie cloud storage) A backup is no good if you can not access it quickly in case of an emergency.
Software License and Other Monthly Services
When building websites it’s not uncommon to purchase software, themes or other monthly renewing services.
Whoever buys these services own the license. If your web designer disappears, you no longer have access to updating the software or themes. If they are being billed for a service and in turn billing you, they have control to stop the service at any time.
I always encourage my clients to make these purchases on their own.
Google Analytics , GMB (Google My Business) pages, social media accounts… While these are not part of your actual website, they are part of your web presence. You should own and control these accounts, don’t let someone else create them for you.
Create these accounts yourself. While they can be held hostage, the bigger issue is that it is a complete pain in the neck to try to change ownership on these accounts. Set them up in your name initially and grant access to your developer if they need it.
I simply won’t create these types of accounts for my clients. I will help you set them up, but it is bad practice to be tied to them.
Work with someone looking out for your best interest.
A main goal of my web development company is to look out for my client’s best interests.
I won’t try to sell you services you don’t need.
I will try to make the process of building and maintaining a website easier for you.
Many of my new clients search for and find web development services I offer because they were having a problem with their prior web designer/web developer.
Recently I had a long term client tell me I was holding his site hostage. I was caught off guard by this accusation since he had full control to every part of his website include; code, hosting service, domain and WordPress CMS.
From what I have describe below, you can see I take into consideration the different parts of website development and I am here to help you by communicating all of the parts of a website that you should have access to and control of.
- I have a contract with every project that states the terms of who owns what.
- With any services that I provide, all logins are provided on day one.
- I make sure licenses and third party services are setup through the client, not in my accounts.
- My hosting services have full account backups enabled in cPanel for you to easily make a hosting account backup.
- My website maintenance plans include weekly code and database backups that are stored offsite for disaster recovery.
I provide professional services that include design, web programming, maintenance and management to help people build and maintain their websites.
I have no desire to create problems for my clients. And, I especially don’t have the time to waste with any drama of holding any part of your website hostage.
So what should you be doing?
Be proactive. Don’t let your website get held hostage. Make sure you understand the terms you are agreeing to up front and you have full control of the services related to your website.
If you don’t have logins to access your website code, hosting account or domain name, ask for them now.
If you don’t have a full backup of your website, DO IT NOW. (If you don’t know what to do, you can hire me. I can’t stress enough how important this is.)
Make sure you trust your web developer. If they are vague up front, or have terms that you are not comfortable with look elsewhere.
If you find yourself in any of the situations described above, get in touch with me to help you gain control of your website.
3 Takeaway Tips
To prevent your site from being held hostage
Every “website hostage situation” is different. It takes time for me to understand your problems and research solutions. You can hire me for consulting for your unique situation.
Note: If your contract says you don’t own the website, then there is nothing I can do but recommend a lawyer to speak to. Even though I may be able to access the code to take a copy, I won’t do what is not ethical.