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I know of a potential customer that has been paying for website development work on an hourly basis for several years by several independent contractors, but has never signed an agreement as to terms or ownership for it. They just get a bill and pay it.

So, does this mean that there is implied ownership by the developer(s) who wrote the software and I can't modify the code without something in writing? Who owns the source code in this case as there are two other developers that worked on it?

By the way, I'm a developer in the USA, working in Missouri.

I did find this useful link that confirmed some suspicions I had about copywrite ownership of software. They also have a free IP(intellectual property) ebook download. No registration required either.

Disclaimer: I understand that any answers are not to be construed as legal advise perse, but I'm wondering if someone else has run into this issue and knows by firsthand experience.

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Please rephrase your question, which implies that this is about contracts while the meat of your text concerns only copyright ownership. If you're interested in contracts implied verbally or by custom that's another whole ball of wax. –  Patrick Hughes Aug 11 '12 at 21:28
    
Good point! It's about copyright ownership. –  James Drinkard Aug 12 '12 at 5:28
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Since copyright law is different in many countries, I would edit the question to explicitly state where you are, or at least ask the answerers to state their location so their advice is taken in context. –  Avner Shahar-Kashtan Aug 12 '12 at 5:45
    
First, talk to a laywer. Second, read up on work for hire. You likely don't fall into it, but it is possible if the contract said so. –  MichaelT Aug 14 '12 at 20:49
    
You should specify in your contracts that YOU keep copyright of the code. And then license the code in some way to your customer. In a lot of coding you repeat steps you would have already done and you wouldn't want to have to ask a previous customer if you could use some custom library functions you made to make your life easier because now they own the copyright on it. –  Pieter B Sep 13 '13 at 7:43
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1 Answer

up vote 10 down vote accepted

I'm not sure how it is in other countries, but here are some notes for US Copyright Law. I will prefix this with the inferred "I Am Not a Lawyer"

As an independent contractor, by default you own the copyright to anything you create. Unless you have explicitly transferred the copyright to another party, you retain those rights...including the right to sell the very thing the you were just contracted to create to another party.

Many people believe stating that the software was written as work for hire is enough but it's not. You still have to explicitly have the contractor transfer over the copyright

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I deleted my answer and went with yours as being the most common case to avoid confusion. Copyright ownership won't stop James from modifying the existing website because that's under licensing and has nothing to do with copyright. –  Patrick Hughes Aug 11 '12 at 21:33
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Not being a lawyer. But in this case does it not fall under a contribution to a collective work and thus a work for hire and thus owned by the company. –  Loki Astari Aug 12 '12 at 6:39
    
I was thinking that as well. I guess it all depends. If the contractor writes the entire software, there is no collective work. But if he adds on to an existent application, I'd try to use that argument in a trial :) –  Mike Brown Aug 12 '12 at 16:32
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You may want to mention what country this is. Laws differ. –  user1249 Aug 13 '12 at 15:57
    
You're right :) –  Mike Brown Aug 14 '12 at 20:57
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