Who Owns Your Website? It’s Not Always You

by | Oct 29, 2019 | JFG News

Do you own or lease your car? Did you buy your house or do you rent? These are straightforward questions that you likely know the answer to offhand. But what if I ask if you own your website? That’s a far more complicated question to answer, and can depend a lot of the different platforms, providers and companies that you work with to create and maintain your online presence.

Let’s take a look at some of the different aspects of what collectively represents your website and help you understand what’s truly yours – and what might not be.

Do You Own Your Website Domain Name?

Your Domain Name

One of the most recognizable parts of your website is its address – the domain name where your website can be reached. And while you may think you own it, you never truly do. When you select your website address, you register it through a third-party registrar like GoDaddy or Yahoo for a given period of time. It must then be renewed at the end of that period, something you may recall doing sometime in the past few months or years, depending on the expiration date for your domain. And even then, it’s possible that tech bugs or a lapse in renewal could lead to someone else buying your domain out from under you – something that happened to the big kahuna itself, Google, just a couple years ago.

Your Hosting

You also typically won’t be hosting your own website. While some larger organizations or corporations may host their own website on their own servers, this is the rare exception. Most websites today are hosted through a third-party provider which offers a lower cost and greater stability and reliability than an in-house server for a monthly or annual fee. In fact, almost one-third of the top 35 million websites worldwide are hosted through one of three providers, according to HostingAdvice.com – GoDaddy (15.2 percent of websites), Amazon Web Services (8.9 percent) or Google Cloud Platform (7.3 percent).

Website Platform or Content Management System (CMS) Graphic

Your Web Platform

Get ready for another strikeout – you don’t own your CMS (content management system) or web platform, either. Here I’m talking about the actual system that manages how text, images, video and other elements of your website display. Commonly at JFG we use the open source WordPress platform (as does much of the rest of the web, as WordPress currently represents about 49 percent of the top 1 million websites), but you may also be familiar with other systems that are in common use such as Drupal, Squarespace, Joomla or Magento.

If you use any of these platforms – or basically, anything you didn’t hard code yourself from scratch – you never truly own it, although platforms like WordPress are open source and free to use. In many cases, you’re also able to export the data to move your site to another hosting provider or adapt the site into a new theme – though this may require anywhere from light to substantial redesign work, depending on the CMS and structure of your overall design. However, beware – with some proprietary or subscription platforms, it can be incredibly difficult or even impossible to export your data, meaning that you’ll need to start from square one if you ever want to move your site or if you stop paying your subscription fees.

Your Website Content

OK, so you have to own something on your website, right? Good news – if you made it, you own it, and that’s going to be largely true of your content.

Whether you wrote the website for copy yourself or paid an agency or freelancer to create it for you, the written words on your site should be yours to use and reuse. The same is true for any videos that you made or photos that you took. But – bad news, again – if you have stock photography that you’re using, you don’t truly own that. Instead, you’ve licensed its use, but that only gives you permission to use images under the terms of the agreement with the stock photography supplier.

Look and Feel – The Code & Design

Website Look and Feel - Code, UX, Design and StyleAnother thing that you may claim ownership over – depending on how you built your website or had it built – may be the underlying code and overall look and feel. When it comes to your design, you can’t own a specific color combination or basic shape, but you can own particular elements used for your site – particularly if they were custom created. However, many sites use pre-developed themes with design elements that help establish a general look – elements you won’t own unless you created them. It may help to think of a theme as being a little like a novelty phone case – it gives a site a unique look, but it’s still the same underlying system.

As for the code, this may be more distinctively your own, especially if your site was created with a CMS that relies more on custom element design. If your site was made for you by a developer, the HTML, CSS and JavaScript that drive its look and feel and content display rules should belong to you after the site is completed. This means you can take it and use it to create new pages or elements for the site, as needed, or even port your site to a new hosting provider or – in some cases – other web platforms.

If your site also involved any custom-coded features, you should also own that programming, as well, so you can reuse it in any future online iterations for your organization. But a note of caution on both of the above points: be wary of any developers working in proprietary systems or that try and claim they will keep ownership after design is done. These are red flags that can lead to a nightmare scenario if you ever try to part ways with that designer or provider.

Lack of Ownership Doesn’t Mean Loss of Control

While you may now realize you don’t own nearly as much as you thought you did, that doesn’t mean that you don’t still have a great deal of control over your online presence. You still can build your website on any system you want – or from raw HTML. You can choose your URL or change it, or even offer to buy one from someone else. You can take your content with you to a new system, or you can update your existing system with a new look and theme. So perhaps you don’t “own” as much as you thought, but it’s still very much “yours.”

At JFG, we offer a wide range of web development and SEO services so you get the best results from your website. No matter your situation, we can help you make the most of how your website looks and how customers can find you online. Let’s talk – send us a note or give us a call today to learn more.