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Content, Writing and Copyright Forum

Copyright: I design and code the site, who owns the copyright?
Them or me?

 1:50 pm on Feb 23, 2005 (gmt 0)

Ok, I thought I had this all figured out, but a client has seriously confused me and I'm looking for some clarification.

I'm designing a site for XYZ Widgets. It's my design, my concept, and my code. Therefore, isn't it my copyright? Or do I have this copyright thing completely confused?

I think I must, because when you look on a company's website, the web design company doesn't usually own the copyright. The company does. So at the bottom it'll say "Copyright 2005 XYZ Widgets" and then "This site was designed by "The web design company."

So which is it? Me or them? Thanks.


Paul in South Africa

 2:12 pm on Feb 23, 2005 (gmt 0)

It depends on the contract you have with your client. In almost all cases that I deal with I include as clause in the contract which states that I retain copyright until full and final payment is made after which copyright belongs to the client. They have paid for it after all.


 2:24 pm on Feb 23, 2005 (gmt 0)


at least in Germany (and I guess the rest of Europe) copyright is non-transferable. That means that you always retain it. The company gets the "exclusive rights of usage".

The question is, if what you did actually falls under copyright (again DE/EU) - simple html/CSS/php code is not protected by copyright and we had a few court rulings that bog standard designs are also not protected. Which leaves the content. If it was provided by the company, they might well just write "(c) widget blue ltd"

The other thing (again at least in Germany) is that although lots of people use the (c) symbol it doesn't have any legal ramifications over here and is not necessary.

So, enough of German copyright, I'm looking forward to hearing other opinions.



 2:25 pm on Feb 23, 2005 (gmt 0)

oh, and welcome to Webmaster World!


 9:54 pm on Feb 23, 2005 (gmt 0)

In the US, a work-for-hire contract can transfer ownership of the design to the company that hired you. But if the contract does NOT clearly spell it out, then my understanding of copyright law is that you maintain copyright ownership over your work (the design). So you could, if you wanted to, use the same design again--though of course that would be a bad idea for other reasons.

Read your contract carefully.


 6:01 am on Feb 24, 2005 (gmt 0)

If you are not an employee, then the copyright is yours until you sign a document (IE a work order) that specifically states you are doing a work for hire or that all rights to said work is given up by you.

This is why there are thousands to millions of web sites out there where the owner does not own the copyright--the design does.


 8:42 am on Feb 24, 2005 (gmt 0)

Obviously the above statements are conflicting. However, I believe if you did the work for someone else, and did not have a contract or something that clearly ( I mean really clear) indicates your ownership, and copyright limitations, and/or licensing, then the buyer owns things. Because they paid for it, and the work was done for him/her/them. They pay for it, you do the work, and they own it, unless it states otherwise in a contract/agreement prior to exchange of funds.

[edited by: engine at 9:54 am (utc) on Feb. 24, 2005]
[edit reason] TOS [/edit]


 1:41 pm on Feb 24, 2005 (gmt 0)

Googline up "copyright" and "work for hire" locates the U.S. government's document explaining copyright law as it relates to work for hire, along with numerous other authoritative sources. They all agree on these points:

A. If you are an actual employee, the work is automatically considered a "work for hire" and copyright belongs to the employer.

B. If you are not an actual employee, then the work is NOT considered a work for hire unless BOTH of the following conditions exist: The work is one of nine specifically defined types of work (part of a compilation, a translation, etc.) AND the parties have a written agreement that the work is a work for hire. If you are an independent contractor, and if your work does not meet BOTH of these conditions, then you own the copyright. Unless you subcontracted out some or all of the work to someone else -- then the copyright is theirs. And if they subcontracted out some of the work -- the copyright belongs to the subsubcontractor.

So, in general, copyright to web development work belongs to the actual developer, not to the party paying for it. A well-drafted contract should specify if and when copyright will transfer to the party paying for it. Also, if you sub out any work, your agreement with your subcontractors should similarly specify transfer of copyright, because you can't transfer copyright to the person paying you unless you own the copyright yourself.

This is all U.S.-specific information and cannot be applied to any non-U.S. situations.


 2:17 pm on Feb 24, 2005 (gmt 0)

Thank you for all of your responses.

So, in general, copyright to web development work belongs to the actual developer, not to the party paying for it. A well-drafted contract should specify if and when copyright will transfer to the party paying for it. Also, if you sub out any work, your agreement with your subcontractors should similarly specify transfer of copyright, because you can't transfer copyright to the person paying you unless you own the copyright yourself.

This is how I thought it was. I have it in my contract that I retain the copyright for the development of the site. I just wanted to make sure I was on the right track, since the client was asking me about it.

Thanks everyone.


 6:58 pm on Feb 24, 2005 (gmt 0)

That is correct.

Why someone would pay for work without obtaining the rights to said work is beyond me--unless the word was not original, IE web site templates.


 6:11 am on Mar 6, 2005 (gmt 0)

Hi everyone! I'm new and would like to copyright my site. Currently, I use an ecommerce template from Miva Corp. But I chose the colors, the pictures, the items to sell on my site...doesn't that qualify for a copyright status? I've look at the government's website for copyrights and I think I can do a text copyright and submit a copy of my site as an example. But it just seems like such a gray area... The process takes a bit of time too, right?

Any comments would be helpful. Thanks!



 12:29 pm on Mar 6, 2005 (gmt 0)

I would hope that if anyone did any work for me - and i paid for it that it would be my copyright. After all it is my spec and my cash paying.



 1:01 pm on Mar 6, 2005 (gmt 0)

> After all it is my spec

Hope shouldn't enter into it. As you desire the ownership and exlusive use, your contract needs to specify that when it's all said, done and paid, your side of the contract holds the copyright.


 11:19 pm on Mar 6, 2005 (gmt 0)

I have found it easiest to explain to clients who don't understand it that even though they are paying for a service, it's a product that you design and therefore you still own rights to it, the same as if you purchase some kind of software for your computer - you paid for it, and can use it, but you don't own the rights to it. The big problem arises when there is no contract (as many of us have done in the past and hopefully have learned our lesson), which is a similar case situation I am in (and yes, I've learned my lesson since then), but a client of mine wants to "do it herself" (in other words, she has hosting elsewhere) and I don't have a contract with her (none).... so is there a link or something somewhere that I can reference if I need?



 11:41 pm on Mar 6, 2005 (gmt 0)

Ownership of copyrights is something that needs to be written into any contract, and factored into the price you charge. If you sell the copyright to a web design, that means that the buyer can actually resell it as a template. Whereas if you simply sell a licence to use a design, they can't. These things should be spelled out clearly and explained to the client so there's no room for ambiguity.

I always consider web development copyright to come into three parts: the graphics, the code, and the text. It may be helpful to divide up the assignment of copyright in this way, and deal with each part separately. Because you may be more likely to need to reuse code (to the extent that it can be copyrighted), whereas somebody else may have supplied most or all of the text. Similarly with graphics and the overall look, are you going to want to reuse it as a template, or not?


 11:59 pm on Mar 6, 2005 (gmt 0)

Rosalind, as for me, I will use the page as a template, I think you were asking to question to me...

so in that case I can register the code? even though I used a shopping cart software?

I wonder if a better route it to copyright the compiling of items; graphics, text, code. Maybe that would be better.

Again all comments welcomed. -CW


 7:24 am on Mar 21, 2005 (gmt 0)

My 2c from recent experience with my lawyers in the UK:

If you are an independent contrator and there is no explicit agreement with your client that they own the copyright to the work you produce, you own it. It can't be implied, it should be defined in the contract up front before pen hits paper.

There is some wiggle room for works of 'joint authorship'; but this is rarely the case in our line of work - they would need to be telling you exactly what to type leaving you with no creative input at all.

Be careful with the license you grant, the words have specific meanings:

An 'Exclusive License' means that ONLY the client can use the work - not you. That means if you've coded something and you grant an exclusive right to that code, you can't use it again if you take it to its logical extreme (i.e. no more shared libraries).

A 'Sole License' means that your client AND you have rights to the work.

Of course, if you're an employee, all this is out the window and it's a whole different ball game!

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