Avoid being held hostage by your Web designer

learn more about Mikal E. Belicove

By Mikal E. Belicove

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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 createher company's website in 2008, which includes an e-commerce-enabledshopping cart containing customized code that she had already paid thedeveloper for. Now, one year later, she wants to move the website toher own server and have it managed by one of her own employees.However, in order to receive 100 percent of the files required to runthe 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 thefollowing terms when the site was built:

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

Iunderstand that the source code for all projects belong to and arecopyright of (Name of Design Firm). Source code is defined as allproject files, executable code, source files and materials used tocreate the framework of the project. [In the event that (Name of DesignFirm) is not able to provide service or future updates, we willnegotiate a flat fee for any source files. This fee will be 50% of thetotal hours spent on the creation of source files. Source files willinclude fla, swf and a copy of the store.]
Youmay be asking yourself, why on earth would anyone agree to suchlimiting terms? If you were in the company owner's shoes and had neverowned a business or had a website built for your business, you mightfall into a similar trap. Feeling pressured to sign a deal, eager tosee the vision for your site come to fruition, or assuming thedeveloper knows best you may unwittingly hand complete control of oneof your business's most valuable assets over to a vendor.

Ifyou'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'shostage taker, holding your website, shopping cart, or other Web-basedtechnology for ransom over even the slightest disagreement. Protectyourself. In this post, I show you how.

Be the master of your own domain
Youor your company should own the domain. Register it yourself. It's cheapand easy, and you can configure the domain name server (DNS) in amatter of minutes to point to wherever you want it hosted. Byregistering 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
Webdesign and programming vendors may offer to host your site on a sharedserver they control. This seems innocent enough. After all, thedeveloper 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 accessto 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
SomeWeb developers insist on licensing their work to clients. In otherwords, the developer owns the code, and you as the client/company payto use it. If your company decides to work with a different developer,it must either purchase the code outright or start from scratch.

Mostbusiness owners would never think of paying their employees a licensingfee for their work, but this is exactly what many companies do whenthey hire a Web developer who insists on licensing. And, in myexperience, most of these companies eventually feel the sting.

Under very few circumstances should you everagree to a licensing deal for source code or website design elements.About the only time to agree such an arrangement is when the cost ofowning the code or design outright is so prohibitive that you wouldnever get it built in the first place. Accepting a more affordablesolution upfront certainly allows your project to get off the groundsooner, but you should always plan to retain complete control over yoursource code and related files.
Mikal E. Belicove

Mikal E. Belicove is a market positioning, social media, and management consultant specializing in website usability and business blogging. His latest book, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Facebook, is now available at bookstores. 

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