Do you have intellectual property rights in someone else’s website?

Posted by Royds Withy King on 29.04.15

Do you have intellectual property rights in someone else’s website?

Businesses are investing more frequently in websites to reach their online audience and target market. As a designer, you may be commissioned by a business to develop a website (or part of it) to promote new ideas, or develop a new brand. One of the big assumptions businesses make is that they own the intellectual property in the website, even in circumstances where they have paid a third party to work on it. However, from a legal perspective this may not be the case. So often we have to give businesses the news that they do not own their website’ and to designers the news that they may own parts of it. Well, I hear you ask, who owns it in which circumstances?

Take for example, a website which on a very basic level consists of text and imagery.

The text

If you are working for a company as an employee and you are asked to write the text for its website as part of your normal duties, then the copyright in that text will automatically be owned by the company. However, if you are commissioned by a third party to write the text for its website, or to amend the text to such a degree that it is unrecognisable from the original draft, then the copyright in the text may be owned by you. This scenario is likely to arise in situations where you are engaged as a contractor to work on a website or a particular part of it AND there is no written agreement in place as to who owns the intellectual property rights in the works! This reason for this is that copyright exists automatically. The general rule is that copyright is owned by the author who creates the works (except where the parties are in an employment relationship). With that in mind, there can be more than one owner of copyright. So if you are working on a website collaboratively with a business, each of you will own the copyright in your respective part. Where you are working collaboratively on the same parts of the works, it becomes more difficult to determine who owns the intellectual property rights.

As a result, if you are engaged by a business to contribute to its website, you may be asked to sign a written agreement transferring your intellectual property rights (including but not limited to for example the copyright in the text) to the business. This is known as an assignment’. Designers are often asked to enter into assignments to avoid queries, or disputes regarding ownership of the works arising further down the line. By agreeing to an assignment, in short, you agree to give up your ownership of intellectual property rights in the project, and transfer them directly to the business.


The same principles of copyright apply to pictures. So in circumstances where you have been asked to provide photography or drawings for use on a business’ website, you may be asked to sign a license agreement. By consenting to a license agreement, you (the owner of the intellectual property rights in the pictures) permit the business to use the images in the way you have agreed. Contrary to an assignment, in a license agreement you retain ownership of the intellectual property. However the circumstances in which the pictures can be used by the business are clearly defined.

If you are not clear on the document you’re being asked to sign…

If you are asked to sign an agreement which states that intellectual property rights of any kind in the website are transferred to a business or your client, and you are unsure about the implications, you should consider taking independent legal advice.

Curious about other types of intellectual property? Here’s a helpful 
summary by Withy King solicitors.

Written by David Cavaliero, Withy King.

Image by Adrian Barclay.

Our Technology and Media team are experts in protecting your intellectual property and can assist you in the preparation of an appropriate agreement. Please contact Jessica Bent at Withy King for further info by email jessica.​bent@​withyking.​co.​uk or call Jessica on 01225 730100.