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I'm a budding web developer, and I wondered if it was illegal to edit a website for a client to include a link that says 'encourage the owner of this site to pay their web developer' and follows up with a pre-made email encouraging the man to pay me.

Here are the conditions:

  • I've completed the work for the contract.
  • I've asked to be paid, and tried to set up meetings with the owner.
  • I've informed the owner of the site that my work will not continue unless I am paid.
  • I should have been paid nearly a month ago (12/27)

Any thoughts other than small claims? This is my first web-development job!

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migrated from stackoverflow.com Jan 20 '11 at 7:46

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for legal reasons, I should stress that this is a hypothetical situation. –  Jackson Buddingh Jan 20 '11 at 7:43
    
You really need to ask a proper lawyer that kind of question. Generally, tho, I wouldn't ever hand over any work until I was paid (or at least had some kind of retainer). –  Jason Coco Jan 20 '11 at 7:46
    
Do not edit anything that is on a server belonging to somebody else (even if you happen to know a valid username/password). PS. Not a lawyer. –  Loki Astari Jan 20 '11 at 8:21
    
thanks to programmers.stackexchange.com/users/12611/jmort253, programmers.stackexchange.com/users/6279/quickly-now, and programmers.stackexchange.com/users/2567/pierre-303 for your great advice! (I don't have the reputation to upvote your answers) –  user13759 Jan 20 '11 at 9:44
    
It depends what country you're in. Too localised? –  Jon Hopkins Jan 20 '11 at 9:57

5 Answers 5

What were the terms of the contract? Most software development contracts state that the rights to the deliverables are transferred client upon full payment. If that is the case, then you still own the content. You could just remove the work you performed until payment is received.

However, this will most likely cause more harm than good in terms of negotiations, unless the work you did was mission critical.

Regarding claims court, a judge would look at the fact that you completed work for a client. If the client has not paid you at all for your work, then the court will most likely look at the fact that you performed a service for nothing. When contracts are ambiguous, courts use a reasonable person standard whereby one could argue that it was unlikely that a provider would perform services for no consideration.

If you received partial payment, then it becomes tougher because the client could argue that you didn't perform the work to the full letter of the contract. Some contracts state that the completion of the project is at the discretion of the client. If this is ambiguous, again the reasonable person standard applies, but it's much harder to measure in that case.

In short, if you defile the client's website, you may never get your money, you may lose the reference, and the possibility for more work.

Honestly, it hasn't even been 30 days! Most clients expect a 30 to 60 day grace period when working with a vendor. Remember, you're not an employee, you are a porfessional contractor, a business entity.

I would recommend you take a deep breath, and wait and see what happens. The client is human too and just got through the holidays. If you wait this out you may discover that you get payment as well as more work! If the delay becomes extreme, like past 60 or 90 days, then take action.

My credit card company isn't even this itchy to get a hold of my money :)

DISCLAIMER: I am not an attorney. I have studied some business law, but I do not consider myself an expert or professional in this area. I have not passed the bar. I worked for a contractor for 2 years building software and received payment every 60 days. My contract was clearly spelled out, and neither myself nor my client had any disputes.

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3  
That's a very logical and straightforward advice. +1 –  user8685 Jan 20 '11 at 9:56

IANAL obv...

As a basic principal of law, someone violating a contract (which your client seems to have done) does not give you the automatic right to wrong the person either by violating the contract yourself (other than in ways specifically outlined in it), or in the sort of nuance / disruptive way you're proposing.

Whether it's illegal or not would depend on the laws in your particular jurisdiction, however it would seem very unlikely that, at the very least, you wouldn't be opening yourself up to a civil counter claim which I'm guessing he would win (on the surface it's something you clearly did, which you have no legal right to do and which is obviously damaging to his business).

More than that you'd lose the ability to walk away from the whole thing. At the moment you have a case against him which you could drop (or choose not to bring) which means that you control things. The minute he has a case against you, you no longer have that control as he has to be willing to drop his case too.

Ultimately in these situations the law expects you to behave reasonably and to use the law to settle things rather than taking them into your own hands.

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This is great advice. When one is wronged, the way to be the one in power and in control is to... well, control oneself :) Having the choice to walk away is worth the lost revenue when compared to being forced to stay the course on something one started while emotions were running high. +1 –  jmort253 Jan 21 '11 at 4:37

NEVER EVER do this, no matter what your client owes you. It is highly unprofessional, and will get you into legal trouble in most jurisdictions, no matter whether there are unpaid bills or not - this is effectively vandalism or worse. You may be able to take the whole site down, on the basis that the other party did not fulfill their part of the contract. But never accuse the client on their own web site - there are few things that can cast a more negative light on you than that.

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You should strictly do what you committed in the contract or agreement. Always.

  • If you delivered the work and the customer did not pay you, he is in fault. In that case, there is a high chance of being paid.
  • If you don't deliver the work and the customer don't pay you, you are both in fault. In that case, you may never be paid.

In court, this will be analyzed like that. The customer (trough his highly trained lawyer) will say he won't pay you because you did not deliver or worse, because you put some harmful declaration on his own website destroying his reputation. In that last case, be prepared to pay!

The attitude to get in that situation is to do everything you should do, and no less. More is always appreciated.

  • Send him a written reminder in 2 weeks (verbal reminders don't exist)

  • If no response after 2 weeks, ask another reminder in which you state that the next step is court

  • If no response after 2 weeks, you must go to court. Not going to court is teaching him to act like that again next time.

My usual procedure (total 2 months and half):

  • One email reminder after 2 weeks
  • One written/fax reminder after 2 weeks
  • Lawyer letter after 2 weeks
  • Court after 1 month

Few advices to avoid the pain in such situation:

  • Always ask 30% upfront payment. Upfront payment should cover all your expenses. This will allow you to get more flexibility in case of problem. Don't start the work until you received the money. Doing so will shows your customer you are determined and professional
  • In the contract, mention the fact that until full payment, the work is your full ownership.
  • Also mention penalties for late payment. 15% one time, then 1% per month. This will be used to pay your lawyer.
  • Clearly mention when he should pay. One month doesn't look like inappropriate to me. Did you heard about NET60?

To summarize: contract/agreement is required, doing what you committed too.

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+1 Agreed you need an agreement. I've had a web site done where the fee was agreed, as was the scope of work, and on delivery I just paid. Easy. The emails constitute the contract. However, a certain amount of trust is needed on both sides for this method to work. If you don't know / don't have this then you need a written contract and scope of work before starting. –  quickly_now Jan 20 '11 at 9:04
    
@quickly_now - You need a contract no matter what. It's not always about trust but instead having a written agreement that you can both refer to in order to answer questions. A contract can take a situation that otherwise may have escalated into an argument and solve the problem without any stress whatsoever. –  jmort253 Jan 21 '11 at 4:40

The other comments here are valid.

When you are a contractor one of the biggest hassles is getting paid. Your contract should state the payment terms (ie 30 days, 60 days, whatever). However in spite of your payment terms being in a contract, its quite normal for some (esp. big) companies to put you on 60 or even 90 day terms whether you like it or not.

If you are dealing with a small operator then this might not be the case (maybe they are just unscrupulous). If a large operator, then expect 6-8 weeks before payment. Phone the accounts department and ask when it will be paid.

Hassling to get paid is part of what being a contractor is about.

On the other hand if they are unscrupulous then you can probably end up in small claims court - but not until a bunch of reminders have been sent - in writing - and not until the debt is well past about 90 days due. Some business people have no morals or scruples and will try it on to see how much they can screw you. In that case you have to be 100% squeaky clean.

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