Having your website held hostage by a developer or designer is more common than you think. Find out who really owns your website and ways to try and get it back!
Have You Lost Access To Your Website?
Did Your Web Developer Disappear?
This happens every day – so first you should know you are not alone!
Business owners and nonprofit organizations are losing control of their websites because they are too trusting and not asking the right questions.
Hiring a web development partner is an important decision. You should make sure that before you allow someone to handle your online presence – they are open and honest and care about your business.
Reasons you may have lost access to your website include:
- You had a partner but had a falling out and they have all the credentials
- Your relationship ended and your significant other will not give you access
- A web developer has gone missing in action
- A disagreement over payment is keeping a designer/developer from releasing the website
While there are ways you may be able to get your website back under your ownership as we have outlined below – sometimes getting it back is just not an option.
Below we are outlining some important things to know before hiring a web developer and some real issues others have been through and how you can solve them (if you can solve them!).
Who Really Owns Your Website?
This depends on a few different things!
The 1st Thing To Do When You Hire A Web Developer
Get a contract! This is a MUST HAVE!
Whether you are an e-commerce website, non profit organizations or a B to B – only work with an agency or developer that will offer or sign a contract. This will give you 100% control of all the assets and pieces of your web puzzle.
You can have an attorney draft up a contract for you – or use the web agencies contract, but make sure there are some notable items in the contract before you sign it.
Make sure the contract CLEARLY states that upon final payment for services rendered your organization has 100% ownership of all assets that the agency was hired to do which may include web design, images, code and content.
There may be more as well – so make sure it is all clear in the contract!
And in case you missed it above – read this part carefully!
MAKE SURE YOU HAVE A CONTRACT!
Things To Think About Before Hiring A Web Partner
Will you have full access to your website?
When you launch your new website, there should be no secrets. Well, really there should never be any secrets when developing your website – but that is another article entirely!
When your website launches, make sure you are provided or have access to the following:
Sadly, we have dealt with several clients over the years where we were not able to access any of their website. Some were because the old web developer is missing in action and others were just because the websites were being held hostage because of a grudge by the former developer.
In either instance, it is a very difficult process to get access to these websites when you have no information! In some cases we had to build new websites on new domains. Not the best for businesses that have a big online footprint with their prior URL.
Will you own your website?
When you contract for a website, you should “own” it. Sometimes a web development agency will state that they own the website because they built it.
Be sure that when you sign the contract there is a clause that states that you own 100% of all design, code and content.
If the agency refuses to add that to a contract, run.
Make sure you buy your own domain name!
In 10 years in this business, I cannot count how many times clients have come to me and wanted me to create a new website for them, only to find out the domain is not in their name. Often they will have a web developer purchase the name on their behalf and never think twice about the long term repercussions. This can often result in a web designer holding your domain hostage for big bucks!
If a web developer is buying a domain for you – they own that domain name unless it is in your account under your name!
Can you get it back? Maybe. But sadly, more often than not you won’t.
Maybe you cannot find the web developer anymore, or you had a bad experience with them and they are holding it hostage – no matter what the circumstances, we have found few ever get their domains back in their name.
We have even seen instances where the domain owner has completely removed the website from the domain and put up spammy content, and there is not a thing a business owner can do. This can ruin an online business.
If you need help buying a domain, make sure you put it in YOUR name in an account YOU can access!
TRUE STORY: One client, who was fairly successful did not own her domain. When we tried to get the former developer to transfer it back to her for ownership, he asked for a $5K “ransom”. He knew he had her because of her reputation and media success. She paid it.
Access to analytical data
This is another big one we see. A prior web developer installs analytics – which is GREAT because every website should have this installed, but they install it under their own personal account.
What this means is that you cannot access the account to control it, and the person can delete the data at any time!
Imagine you work with an SEO agency, they tell you that they need to install Google Analytics for your campaign. You say “why of course”! They install it on their account with their other 20 clients. All is going great until your SEO plan ends end or you fire them.
At that point they can delete your data. Yes, YOUR data! Critical information that can help you improve your conversions, usability and web presence!
If someone recommends you install Google Analytics, make sure you provide them a Google Account to use that you have full access to at all times!
Hosted Platform Ownership (Wix, Weebly)
We are getting more questions about ownership of websites built on Wix, Weebly and Squarespace lately so we wanted to address that as well.
Just like a domain – if a developer/designer creates the account for you on any of these hosted platforms and builds the website for you – technically they own the website! If you have a contract in place that may offer some protection, but we know with these types of websites you are not typically using contracts so you may be risking your website.
We just had someone contact us who had a developer create a Squarespace website for them – they got paid, but now the client has no access to the website to do anything with it and the developer is not responding.
Steps To Make Sure You Own Your Website!
All of the above are situations we have seen over the years, but are all items that can easily be avoided by asking the right questions and not being afraid to request access to your critical web information. We have seen this happen with bloggers, SEO clients and even charity website design clients – and it sucks! If all of these items are addressed prior to hiring a web firm, you can rest easy knowing your website is yours – FOREVER!
Simple steps to make sure you own your stuff!
- Purchase your OWN domain name then allow the developer access to it if needed.
- Make sure you have a contract that outlines any work to be done and who owns what.
- If you are using a hosted platform like Squarespace, create your OWN account and then provide access to the developer.
- If you decide to host with your developer – make sure you receive access to your hosting account (cPanel) when your website launches.
- If you get hosting – make sure it is in YOUR NAME and then you can provide limited access to any developer or designer to prevent them from taking over your account.
- Do NOT pay any final invoices until all passwords and access has been delivered and tested by you.
Frequently Asked Questions About Website Ownership!
If you have a website that was developed by a partner – and now you cannot access it because of something that partner has done – or in essence “holding your website hostage”, please read the below to see options for getting your website back in your hands.
These are all questions and circumstances that have happened to people we have spoken to and we are putting them here with our thoughts to try and help you regain access if it is possible.
I can access my WordPress admin, but cannot see any menu items except for posts and pages?
Someone asked this question and shared their login information with us so we could see what was happening. The website was built by an agency – but they only gave the website owner limited access to the admin by making them an editor.
They were able to add/edit posts and pages but were unable to do anything else. Sadly neither could I since the client was not even able to change user levels for people.
When a slideshow needed to be edited, they could not do it and had to ask the developer. The developer hid the entire menu section for a lot of functionality forcing the client to pay them for the time to do the updates.
WHAT TO DO: Ask the developer to make you an “Admin” or “Super Admin” if they are using that so you can access all hidden areas. If they decline, then if you have access to your cPanel you can do it through there as well by going into the database.
Agency says they do not have my website login anymore?
This question was about a Squarespace website which the person had just had built a few months ago. The agency they hired noted they could not provide access to the client because it “messed with the updates” – this is NOT a thing and is bull**it.
The person has been asking for updates to be done to the website but now the agency is saying the person who built the website has left and no one has the login information to access the website.
It was not clear if the agency or the person who asked the question created the Squarespace account, but we are assuming it was the agency.
One thing we did notice is that the URL was a Squarespace URL (not a formal URL) – so the agency never changed the DNS for the domain, which is a saving grace since the client could still access the domain themselves.
WHAT TO DO: Contact Squarespace and see if you have any hope at all of gaining access to the website. Send emails, contracts and anything you have that can prove this is in fact YOUR website that you paid someone to build for you.
Sadly, if the Squarespace account was created under the agencies name – you may be out of luck. If access cannot be given – the next option is to rebuild the website on your OWN Squarespace account. You can pull the design from the Wayback Machine if it has been cached.
When Is It OK For A Developer To Keep Website Control?
The only situation we can think of is if a client does not pay for the website in full.
We have a contract in place that states we do not release the website until the final payment is received – it is a clear line item in our contract.
If a web agency has a similar statement, then they have every right to keep control of the website UNTIL you pay them for the balance they are owed.
If you are with-holding payment for a reason – then please be clear with the agency or developer as to why you are not sending that payment so they can rectify the situation.
Communication is KEY to ensuring you are happy as a client and the developer is happy as a service provider.
If no contract is in place – then you may have been too trusting and there is no “obligation” for the agency or developer to release it and you are hoping they will do the right thing. Not sure that is a chance you want to take with your business!
How Do I Know Who Owns My Domain Name?
Not sure if you actually own your domain name or not?
Unfortunately – there may be some difficulties with this since some registrars set this information to private now – especially those countries that have GDPR laws.
But you can use either:
Just enter your domain and you may get to see who registered the domain. If not you will at least see where the domain was registered and you can contact them to see if they can help you determine if you do in fact own the domain.
Can I Sue My Web Developer?
This is one we recommend you consult an attorney for! But in short – if you are in the US and do not have a contract with your web developer, it will be a hard case to win!
If you have a lot of email correspondence with the web developer regarding terms and expectations – that may be an alternative to a formal contract so be sure to save every email you have with your developer!
Need Help Resolving Your Issue?
We got a lot of calls because of this post – and we understand you may want – or need – help getting control of your website. But calls to assist you with these issues can be time consuming for us.
If you would like us to try and help you regain access to your website or consult on your issue – we can offer consulting at a flat rate of $50 for 30 minutes of our time.
If you are interested, then please contact us – describe your problem in detail and we will then send you an invoice.
Once the invoice is paid we will then research your website and contact you via phone for your consultation to help guide you.
Please understand we CANNOT GUARANTEE that we can help you, sometimes that is just not possible because of the legalities of copyright. Our fee is not refundable in these instances as you are paying for our time.
We also cannot offer legal advice on copyright, trademark or contract law. We highly recommend you contact an attorney for those issues.