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10 tips to make sure you own your website

Is your website owned by somebody else?

Many small traders spend a lot of time and money building up their websites without realising everything could be taken away from them on the whim of a designer or a programmer who may claim ownership in the brand, or the site, or the software that runs the site.

1. Make sure you are the registered owner of your domain name
Who registered the domain name? If a freelance web designer did, did they register the domain in their own name or did they register it in your name as the client? Lots of domains are legally owned by the web designer that built the site. This could pose a problem especially if, for example, you lose contact with the registrant in the future and you need to transfer the domain. Additionally, if a UK company registers the domain and that company stops trading, the domain may become invalid – Nominet advises, for example, that a .uk domain registered to a company that no longer exists will be struck off.

What you should do: Do a Whois search for your domain to see who is teh registered owner and, if necessary, ask them to arrange a transfer to you.

2. Get registrar control of your domain name
As well as the legal owner of a domain name, each domain has to be hosted by a registrar – this is the company that was used to purchase the registration, such as Heart Internet, 123-reg or Network Solutions. The registrar gives you access to the domain through an account with a login, enabling you to manage things like the routing and contact information – as well as the ability to transfer it to another registrar. The person with this access controls the domain – this access is, effectively, a business asset so you should make sure you have it.

What you should do: Find out who has registrar access to managing your domain name(s) and ensure you have access to this information too. If you move your website one day and you can’t access the domain to re-direct it to the new server, your hands are tied.

3. Claim ownership of your logo
What happens if, one day, you receive a cease and desist letter from a designer telling you to stop using your website logo because it is owned by him and not by you? This is possible if, for example, the logo was designed by a freelancer who never assigned copyright to you. Because copyright law is automatic in Europe, the creator owns the work, so in order for you to own your new logo, you need to make sure you are buying full copyright when you pay your designer.
What you should do: Ensure all important branding work carried out for you comes with full copyright assignment. A good idea is a print out of the work with an assignment notice, signed by the designer.

4. Ensure your website is not owned by someone else
There have been cases where a company decides to move its website from one company to another, only to be told that they have to pay another fee to buy the copyright. This unpleasant surprise is similar to the previous problem – a company designs your website for you but never assigns copyright to you. All is well while you are paying them to host and maintain the website, but as soon as you try to leave, they turn the screws. This sounds unscrupulous (which it is) but it is not illegal.

What you should do: Ensure any work carried out for you includes transfer of copyright in the work, so you own it. Ask about this before hiring any production company.

5. Are you plagiarising other websites unwittingly?
I have sometimes come across problems where I publish something in good faith that has come from a press release, only to find by chance that the press release has itself plagiarised someone else’s work. This is a difficult area, because a press release is generally something you can publish verbatim if you wish. However, if the PR company has stolen someone else’s work to write the press release, you will be in breach of copyright as much as they

What you should do: when republishing content provided to you (whether from a PR company or a journalist) look up the article on Copyscape to see if there are obvious signs of plagiarism.

6. Don’t just assume pictures are free because they appear on Google Images.
I have heard people say this lots of times: “I grabbed some images off Google Images.” The common view is that if it’s in Google Images it’s free, and this view could land you with a hefty legal bill. I’ve seen stories in the past of photo libraries sending invoices to websites for using their images without permission – because they have found them online somewhere and just assumed it would be fine to use them. As a general rule, every photograph is owned by someone, and if you want to use it on your website then you have to ask their permission, unless you grab it from a source where permission is granted.

What you should do: Ensure you are not using pictures commercially that you have just grabbed from elsewhere without verifying who owns them.

7. Understand who owns user-generated content
If your website contains a forum, a blog or other social networking features, it is probably full of comments by visitors, or even photos and videos that they have uploaded to share with others. The copyright in each individual picture, video or post is owned by the person who created it (not necessarily the person who uploaded it). When they transfer it to your site, they are not transferring the copyright ownership. Therefore, it is a grey area when it comes to re-publishing that content.

What you should do: Have a clear user policy on the site that clearly states how you will use the content submitted by users. You may want to make it available in other forms, for example, in a printed magazine column, or on a mobile application. Have a fair use policy that covers these eventualities and remember the copyright licence granted to you by the user relates only to this fair use.

8. Make sure contracts with suppliers are enforceable
You might do everything in your power to ensure your suppliers transfer copyright ownership to you, that your logo is yours and you own and control your domain name. However, what if the supplier you signed a contract with did not have the authority to assign copyright to you? I read of a case recently where a website owner was contacted by a sub-contractor of a freelancer claiming ownership of something on the website. This sub-contractor had been hired by the web design company to create something and was not paid. The original client knew nothing of this relationship and was left in a sticky situation where they might perhaps have to pay again to retain the use of this particular area of their website.

What you should do: When signing agreements with creative providers, carry out due diligence on everything they are providing you. Ask them to guarantee that they are providing material that is not plagiarised, and if it is provided by third parties, as them to verify that they have the copyright to hand over.

9. Beware of plagiarism in your keywords and code
There are precendential laws in place to protect brand names and keywords in the meta tags of websites. For example, if you copy the meta keywords verbatim from one of your competitors, they could still take action against you for breach of copyright (regardless of what you think about their chances of winning such an action). Some companies have run into trouble for using popular brand names in their keywords to try to boost their chances of appearing in search results – but such a use could now result in legal action for trademark infringement.

What you should do: Don’t just look at the content on your website that the public sees – consider the invisible code as well. Ensure your work is original, or at least copied under licence.

10. Take steps to protect your own copyright
Copyright law is not the same worldwide, so you should take steps to ensure you protect your content appropriately for as wide an audience as possible. While in the UK and much of the world, copyright is automatic (ie, you own it once you create it) there is the legal problem of being able to prove it’s yours if ever there is a dispute.

What you should do: Develop a copyright management policy and ensure this is clear on your website, so visitors can read it. A universal “Copyright 2010” statement isn’t enough if your website contains a lot of material with different copyrights dating back to different dates.

More info: US Copyright Office FAQ, UK copyright advice, European Union copyright advice

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