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Website – He Who Pays For It May Not Own It

07th January 2011
By Richard Chapo in Law
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Why do you need a lawyer when dealing with legal issues? For one simple reason – the law often makes no logical sense. A perfect example of this is the issue that comes up when you pay someone else to build a website for you.

I want you to consider an example. I am a contractor that builds custom homes. You come to me with custom plans. We negotiate an agreement, put everything in writing and get underway. Six months later, the home is done, I am paid, you are moved in and we are all happy. Fast forward another six months.

You are driving down the road and see an exact copy of your house. Even better, you see my company sign out on the fence in front. Are you going to be blazing mad? Yes. Can you sue me for using my idea to build the same exact house again? Yes. Oddly, however, this isn’t what happens with websites.

Let’s assume I am a website designer. You want to start a site and approach me to design it. We agree on terms, you hand over a check and off I go. A few months later, the final site is done, you’ve paid me and we go our separate ways. Then you start seeing the same design on other sites. Can you sue me? Yes, but you will not win.

The problem is copyright. The way copyright law works, the “author” of the work is automatically given ownership of their work. This is true despite the fact it was originally your idea and you paid me money to build it for you. This may seem incredibly unfair, but it is true and yet anther example why the web is the place were traditional legal ideas get mangled.

Fortunately, there is a way around this problem. Actually, there are two. The first is to hire the designer as an employee. The work of employees is owned by their employer, so you don’t have the problem. Of course, the downside is you have to pay employee benefits and the like. Most don’t want to do that which makes our second option a better choice.

The second option is to sign a contract in which the designer assigns all ownership interest in the design to you. This is known as a website development contract or website project agreement. It is a relatively simply agreement, but one that carries a ton of weight if you start seeing your site replicated online.

Richard A. Chapo is an internet attorney providing legal services including the creation of a website development agreement and other documents critical to protecting website owners.
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