Symposium: A Cyberspace Perspective on Intellectual Property, Information Technology, and the Internet

Who Owns the Web Site?: The Ultimate Question When a Hiring Party Has a Falling-out with the Web Site Designer


Rinaldo Del Gallo, III


VOL. XVI • Summer 1998 • NO. 4 (table of contents)

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16 John Marshall J. of Comp. & Info. Law 857


The question is "Who owns your web site?" This question is difficult to answer absent a copyright assignment clause since no one knows who the owner of the web site is under current law. There are several problems that occur when a web designer is placed in a position against the hiring party in determining ownership rights to a web site.

It is important to distinguish ownership rights to a web site, since most contractual agreements between a web site designer and a hiring party do not address this issue. Every day, hundreds of new web sites are appearing and because of this, web design firms have sprouted up all over the globe. Legions of people are hiring these web site designers to construct web sites for them. However, many of these people are making arrangements with web site designers without a copyright assignment clause.

Section 117 of the Copyright Act (which allows an individual to make alterations to a single copy of software under certain conditions), and the first-sale doctrine (which extinguishes the copyright holders interest in a single copy of a work once it has been sold), are both called into question. However, the first step in this analysis is to determine who the author is. If it is determined, that the hiring party is not the author, then it must be determined whether there has been a transfer of any of the rights in the copyright from the web site designer to the hiring partner. In addition to such analysis, there are several proposed methods to determine who the author is and whether a transfer has actually occurred.

There is an absence of case law and other similar precedent in which to decide these issues. A careful and complex analysis is required in determining who in fact is entitled the ownership rights to a web site. In conclusion, this can all be prevented with the use of carefully drafted assignment clauses between a web site designer and a hiring party.

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