Avoid being held hostage by your Web designer

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hostage-designer.jpgRecently, I received an e-mail message from a reader of my Entrepreneur magazine column inquiring whether I could help her company gain access to source code that a third-party programmer had created on their behalf and is being used to run certain areas of her company's website.

Her company had hired a Web design and programming firm to create her company's website in 2008, which includes an e-commerce-enabled shopping cart containing customized code that she had already paid the developer for. Now, one year later, she wants to move the website to her own server and have it managed by one of her own employees. However, in order to receive 100 percent of the files required to run the site, her company has no choice but to pay an additional fee. Why? Because the site is hosted by the developer, and, she agreed to the following terms when the site was built:

Unless other contractual arrangements are made beforehand, you will not be receiving any source code or files containing code of any kind from us other than what is stipulated here: You can request a CD or ZIP file containing and limited to: ".swf", "html", files for purposes of backing up your site. Unless specific arrangements are made these files cannot be altered, adjusted, decompiled or changed in any way. If you remove and edit or otherwise obtain files not given to you by us you are in direct copyright and contractual violation.
The website design firm further stipulated:

I understand that the source code for all projects belong to and are copyright of (Name of Design Firm). Source code is defined as all project files, executable code, source files and materials used to create the framework of the project. [In the event that (Name of Design Firm) is not able to provide service or future updates, we will negotiate a flat fee for any source files. This fee will be 50% of the total hours spent on the creation of source files. Source files will include fla, swf and a copy of the store.]
You may be asking yourself, why on earth would anyone agree to such limiting terms? If you were in the company owner's shoes and had never owned a business or had a website built for your business, you might fall into a similar trap. Feeling pressured to sign a deal, eager to see the vision for your site come to fruition, or assuming the developer knows best you may unwittingly hand complete control of one of your business's most valuable assets over to a vendor. 

If you're thinking about outsourcing your website design or programming, then consider how much control you will ultimately have over it. Today's friendly Web designer or programmer can become tomorrow's hostage taker, holding your website, shopping cart, or other Web-based technology for ransom over even the slightest disagreement. Protect yourself. In this post, I show you how.

Be the master of your own domain
You or your company should own the domain. Register it yourself. It's cheap and easy, and you can configure the domain name server (DNS) in a matter of minutes to point to wherever you want it hosted. By registering your own domain, you gain the following:

  • Ownership of the domain (yourcompany.com) and any subsets of it, such as blog.yourcompany.com and shop.yourcompany.com.
  • Freedom to specify contact information for the domain's registrant and administrative and technical contacts.
  • Ability to move your site to a different hosting service and reconfigure the DNS to point to the new location.
  • Ability to use your domain for whatever email addresses you want to add.
Treat your domain as a valuable company asset. Allow no one to register or own the domain on your behalf. 

Always play host
Web design and programming vendors may offer to host your site on a shared server they control. This seems innocent enough. After all, the developer needs quick and easy access for any maintenance or repair, and perhaps you know nothing about Web server management. But this, too, puts you at the mercy of the developer, because you have no access to your files. Protect yourself:

  • Choose a hosting service that you and the developer feel comfortable using.
  • Establish your own account with the hosting service.
  • Pay the hosting fees to the hosting service yourself.
  • Set up administrative privileges for yourself, and add and remove users and control access to your files yourself.
Avoid licensing what you already paid for
Some Web developers insist on licensing their work to clients. In other words, the developer owns the code, and you as the client/company pay to use it. If your company decides to work with a different developer, it must either purchase the code outright or start from scratch.

Most business owners would never think of paying their employees a licensing fee for their work, but this is exactly what many companies do when they hire a Web developer who insists on licensing. And, in my experience, most of these companies eventually feel the sting.

Under very few circumstances should you ever agree to a licensing deal for source code or website design elements. About the only time to agree such an arrangement is when the cost of owning the code or design outright is so prohibitive that you would never get it built in the first place. Accepting a more affordable solution upfront certainly allows your project to get off the ground sooner, but you should always plan to retain complete control over your source code and related files.
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