I was asked today about the ownership rights of a website.  When you have a website created, how much of it do you actually own?  Not being a lawyer, but a web developer, I’m not an authority on this, but I will at least speak to some of the aspects that go into a modern website and what level of rights to the best of my knowledge you can have to them.

Domain Name

The domain name of your business is an often an important part of your business’s brand.  Some businesses use their domain name as their brand itself.  This is nothing new, think of 1-800-FLO-WERS.  Their brand is their phone number, but do they own this number?  Not really, they have an agreement with a carrier who connects calls to this number to another local number, which is also assigned to them by a phone company.  You can read more about this system on Wikipedia.   The domain name system is very similar.  Governments of each nation provide the rights directly or indirectly through a third party such as Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a California based non-profit corporation.  These organizations or governments then grant license to registrars the ability for entities (people or organizations) to register these domains and point them to their website, similar to how an 800 number points to a local number.  In effect they are sponsoring your use of the domain name by assigning the domain name to you for your exclusive use for a term of 1-10 years (the maximum sponsorship length presently allowed by ICANN).  Your friend, hosting provider, or web designer may register this domain on your behalf.  The important thing is that they do so with your permission and register it your legal name.

IP Address

Remember the local number part?  This is where the IP address comes in.  This is the number that is assigned to the computer that responds to requests for information on your site.  Similar to domain names these IP addresses are usually unique to a particular machine.  They typically allocated to service providers and then further allocated to hosting companies, and finally allocated to your site or a group of sites including yours.  When an IP address only belongs to your site it is considered a dedicated IP address, when it belongs to a group of sites it is a shared IP address.  Dedicated IP addresses are generally required and preferred in ecommerce applications or other applications where security is important, because it helps guarantee that the information being aquired is going to your site and only your site and is not likely to go to another untrusted location.  Just like domain names there is a limited supply of IP addresses, so you may have to pay a little extra for each one you ask to be reserved for your exclusive use.


I am skipping some major parts of the Internet and the points that connect your site to a persons computer.  Once all of these points are connected your visitor is connected to a server, which is essentially a computer on the other end of the line that talks to the visitors computer.  When a visitor asks for information about you or your company the server then responds with this information.  Unless you bought this computer that responds, you most likely do not own it.  You typically make an agreement with a hosting provider allowing you to use in return for a fee.  Similar to renting a P.O. box at your local post office.  You can receive information through email or through a browser, but you do not own the box, just access to it.  You may also be able to control who can access it and other factors depending on what your provider allows.


It used to be websites were just a bunch of files that lived on the server.  This is still practical for the smallest of sites, but likely you want to provide a more interactive experience for your visitors.  Allowing them to among other things contact you, search for information, and maybe purchase products.  All of these things require software.  The way your website is developed and parts of the software you own is the first place you often have control.  You can hire a large number of developers to create each part of the application your website requires.  From the basic image and file retrieval, to the forms, and finally to sending it all to visitor.  But this would require a huge investment on your part.  Typically designers use many different pieces of software together to create the final product of your site.  Each piece of software has its individual license and agreement for its use.  This may belong to the design company, a large corporation such as Microsoft, or to a non-profit organization.  Some software requires purchasing the license, where others are Open Source allowing the public or your designer to use it as part of your site.  This can save you significant amounts of money, by leveraging what was done in the past, to create your site and not have to pay to recreate it.  How much of your site’s software is created for you by scratch and how much is re-purposed or licensed from a third party is up to you and your comfort level and budget.

It is worth mentioning if you are paying for the development of software those rights should be transfered to you under copyright law as part of works done by hire.  This is usually the case unless some other arrangement has been made.  I’ll talk a bit more about this in the next section.


Again, content like software used to be all provided by you or the designer of the site.  Now though the actual site the person sees in the browser, might be a combination of content from many different sources.  Major sources might be: clip art, stock photography, templates, news or stock feeds, animations, and boilerplate copy.  Each of these things are individually licensed by the creator or publisher who usually retains the copyright to the material.  It is important that you or your designer has the rights to use this content on your site.  Using this content plus the information, photos, and other media you provide the designer creates your website.  This work if you are paying for it is considered work done for hire under the US copyright law.  It is usually a good idea to make sure that your contract with the designer upholds this designation.  Otherwise you may be agreeing to assign these rights back to the designer, which may be appopriate in cases where your budget doesn’t allow for covering all of the designers costs, but usually it is a good idea to retain these rights yourself.


Your website embodies an important part of your companies brand and operations.  It is essential to maintain control over the site, but you rely on a lot of different entities along the way to make it work.  Each of these have different agreements and licenses.  Making sure you understand these agreements is important to the maintenance and longevity of your website and brand.  Ask questions along the way to make sure you know what you are getting and get legal advice when an isssue is extremely important to you or your business.  You are making an investment in your future and you have a right to know you are getting.  It might be full rights, a license, or a service.  It all depends, in part on the way the Internet is setup and on your choices.