If you’ve been developing websites for any length of time, you’ve probably created some snippets or chunks of reusable code including HTML, CSS, or maybe even classes and modules. If you’re developing on a platform like WordPress or using any kind of template system (like Smarty templates), then having this reusable code is your lifeblood. Without it, your projects would take forever.
Because you work so hard to create your code, often spending hours refining it until it’s a usable framework for your projects, it can be disheartening and upsetting when a client makes a copy of their website and sells it as a template to their customers. For example, you may build a custom WordPress theme for a business coach and then discover that they’ve sold a copy of that theme to their clients.
This type of scenario happens often, and while it seems like there’s no easy way to prevent it – since anyone with access to the source code can easily make a copy – there actually is a way to stop it.
Here are three tips to head this off at the pass:
1. Assume ignorance on the part of your client
The first thing you need to understand is that customers don’t always know that they don’t automatically own the copyright to their own website. Most people assume that when they pay someone to perform work, they own all rights to that work. Even in the photography industry, people have a hard time understanding how someone else can own the copyright to a series of photos they paid thousands of dollars for.
The truth is that unless you’re an employee developing websites as part of your employment, websites do not automatically fall under the definition of a “work for hire.” Therefore, no matter how much someone pays you for a site, they can only own the copyright to an explicit work for hire agreement or a copyright transfer.
When you remember that your client is probably clueless about this, your next step is to figure out a way to clarify this with them, without being too abrasive, yet making it clear that you own the copyright.
You can make it clear by adding a couple of extra sections to your website development contract.
2. Create a simple license agreement
It may sound redundant, but creating a license agreement will make it clear to your client that you are providing them with a license to operate the website you’ve created for them. You can do this simply; it doesn’t need to be complex.
3. Create an explicit copyright agreement
The next way to create clarity around the copyright situation is to create an explicit agreement between you and your clients that specifically defines what copyrights they do and do not own at the end of the project. Even if it seems obvious to you, when you spell it out for your client, it eliminates any potential for confusion.
First, you’ll want to understand and define the difference between a copyright and a trademark inside of the agreement with your client. This is important because many customers will provide you with their existing trademarked logos, and you want to make sure you explicitly acknowledge that they are providing you with the temporary right to use their trademarks in the process of producing the website.
When it comes to copyrights, if you designed their website on a framework that you use for other projects, you don’t want to transfer that copyright to the client. You’ll want to make it clear in the agreement that while your client owns the copyright to all material they have provided you with (like articles, copy, photographs, graphics, logos, etc.), they do not own the copyright to any source code you’ve created.
You’ll also want to explicitly state that they cannot distribute a copy of their website to other people, with or without an exchange of money.
Keep your project pure as long as possible
At the end of the day, the biggest benefit to clarifying the copyright boundaries between you and your clients is that when your client is clear about what they can and cannot do, they’re going to be less likely to copy your work because they’ll know you’re aware of your intellectual property rights.
When you’re working with clients long term, they’ll probably call you to make updates periodically. And when your customer understands that you own the source code, you can get them to agree that they will not hire anyone else to update or alter the source code until your working relationship is officially terminated.
And that means you won’t have to worry about having to fix someone else’s mistakes if your client decides to try hiring someone on Fiverr just to save a few bucks.