Project Management

Quick tips: Web designers should be aware of these four legalities

Ryan Boudreaux offers some guidance on several legal matters that web designers need to address, possibly with the aid of a professional legal adviser.

In this installment of quick tips for web design, I'll focus on legal aspects including disclosure, licensing, and copyright. Remember that in any legal and contract situation you should get the advice of a legal professional; this article is a good starting point for early discussions with your legal adviser.

#1 Disclosure

Do you have a blog? If so, do you frequently review products from other companies and manufacturers that provide payment or free merchandise? Be sure to mention that fact in your blog post, and whether the product was provided for free or payment. It is also a good idea to have a disclaimer or disclosure policy statement that explicitly affirms how you treat marketing standards and any compensation for product reviews.

#2 Contracts

Are you a contractor or freelance web designer who builds web sites for other people, organizations, or businesses? Then you should make sure that you have a signed contract with each client that becomes the legally binding agreement between you and the customer. And make sure that your contracts are bulletproof, meaning that the document should reflect everything that you and your client have agreed upon during the discussion stages and sales process. It protects you as well as the client by specifying the expectations, and allows you to be prepared should the customer be unable to fulfill or meet their end of the deal or contract requirements.

Always consult with or have a lawyer or legal adviser review your contracts to verify them before they are binding or signed. For the frugal minded, it is cheaper to have your contracts reviewed than it is to have them custom written from scratch by legal advisers.

#3 Licensing

Do you have a licensing policy and procedure for your web design or product? There are many sources available for creative commons or open source licensing, and many are boilerplate statements which offer several options to fit most situations. Creative Commons licenses provide simple, standardized alternatives to the "all rights reserved" paradigm of traditional copyright. Answer a few questions about your work, such as will you allow commercial use or not, and do you want to allow derivative work based on your original work; your responses will help to pin down the type of licensing you want on your creation and design.

The Open Source Initiative (OSI) are stewards of the Open Source Definition (OSD) and the commonly recognized body for reviewing and approving licenses for OSD works. Open source licenses are provided in many categories and names, including the popular GNU General Public License, Attribution Assurance Licenses, and special purpose licenses such as Educational Community License, NASA Open Source Agreement 1.3, and Open Font License 1.1.

#4 Copyright

Along the same line with licensing, a copyright statement, while not completely necessary, is always a good reference to have on your web sites. Because ignorance of copyright infringement is not a valid excuse in a US court of law, all original works are considered copyrighted when fixed in a medium and do not need to be registered. There are exceptions in about 20 countries where a copyright notice is still required for the work to be protected. If you feel that your work has been stolen and you have been a victim of copyright infringement, there are resources to help you deal with the matter. For instance, Lorelle on WordPress has a great three part series on "What Do You Do When Someone Steals Your Content." She includes topics on how to identify the source, contacting the content thief, issuing cease and desist orders, contacting the advertisers, requesting a ban from search engines, and more tips for dealing with stolen content.

Have you been a victim of copyright infringement? If so, how did you handle the incident?


Ryan has performed in a broad range of technology support roles for electric-generation utilities, including nuclear power plants, and for the telecommunications industry. He has worked in web development for the restaurant industry and the Federal g...


Another matter that is specific to web and print design is who actually owns the design itself? For example an interior designer doesn't own any copyright to his/her work however an author or publisher does. I had 1 contract that did not allow me to promote I designed or programmed the website (a government department) where others did allow me to do so. Instead they allowed me to make a general statement that I was a major contributor to their website (negotiated but they weren't too happy about it). In many countries there is case law that states the legal owner of the copyright and IP on design of a website is the customer and not the developer, so if your contract does not specify that you retain the copyright and IP to the website design you may not be allowed to re-use any part of that design or code legally. Suddenly your code that you developed for the customer belongs to them and each time you want to use it you need to pay or just not use it. Another matter is acknowledging what you do not own in contracts, a general statement saying that you may use scripts, libraries and other such code or material in the website that is under license from 3rd parties and the original author retains these rights is not a bad idea. If you use a standard set of libraries for your websites you can even include this information and that it is likely they will be used. Generally a minor issue but depends on how much you want to cover yourself. But as the article says, consult your lawyer, some of this comment is regional and may not apply to you.


I'm surprised that there was no mention of some other legal pitfalls in web design. For instance, if you base a site design on previous work that you have done, do you own the rights to that previous work? Some contracts (especially for government work) specify that the client owns the copyright to the work produced, and you would then need their approval to re-use the design. There is also the common problem of using content "borrowed" from the web: fonts, pictures and graphics, music and so on. Although there is a lot of material available that can be freely used, some of it requires that you acknowledge the source of the material, and others specify that, while you can use this material, it cannot be copyrighted (or otherwise protected) by you except under specific conditions such as a GNU license. Finally, you may need to distinguish between rights for the intellectual property (IP) of the website itself, and for the IP of website content. I recently designed a website for an artist, which included photographs of his work. All of the images of the artwork were, by necessity, copyrighted by the artist and could not be used or reproduced without permission. But the website design and my own contributions to the content could be covered by a different form of IP protection (e.g an attribution assurance license), if this was agreeable to the client and permitted under my contract.


Remember, If you absolutely don't want others copying your work, don't put it on the internet for them to see....


It isn't infringement for people to see these, and if people can't see your site or its content, what is the point of the commercial Web? (Or non-commercial, for that matter.) And whatever Lorelle on WordPress suggests, the best method is simply to inform the public (your readers/users, other bloggers, etc.) what is happening. The results can be fairly amazing.

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