From time to time, more frequently than one would think likely, I have clients asking me if it is possible to move a website from an errant web designer or a bad web host without the cooperation of that person or company. This may happen because the web developer or web host has refused to relinquish control of the site when asked to. For example, they may not have given the owner his/her login and password so that the latter can access the site to update it themselves. This article attempts to address the problem.

The Context of the Question

The people who ask me this question usually have slightly different circumstances. The most common scenario is that they have hired a web designer to create and maintain a website for them, and that designer has ignored their requests for the site to be updated. And when they ask the designer to return the website to them, they meet a wall of silence. Another common scenario is where their web host has gone bad in some way (or even missing), and they want to move their site elsewhere.
Before you take the steps written here, consider the following:

  • Are you sure there is no misunderstanding between you and your designer as to the scope of his/her duties? Re-read your contract with that person. Does it specify that he/she update your website or does the fee you paid only include the initial design work? Maintenance work (that is, updating of your website) usually involves a monthly (or annual) fee, over and above the monthly (or annual) web hosting fees. If you only made a one-time payment, chances are that it only covers the initial creation of the site.
  • Do not use this procedure as a means of solving your dispute with your web designers. That is, if you have withheld payment from them for some reason, and they’re ignoring you because you’ve not paid up, this article will not solve your problem. Your designers will probably just haul you to court for breach of contract (for failing to pay up).

Put simply, this article does NOT deal with contract disputes and legal remedies. It merely discusses the technical means that you can use to reclaim a website that legally and rightfully belongs to you. And it assumes that you no longer have access to your web hosting account: that is, you cannot log into your account to download a copy of all your files (via FTP or through your web host’s control panel), nor are you able to modify your website’s files.

Your Domain Name is Priority

Ultimately, where technical means are concerned, everything hinges on whether you have control over your domain name.
A domain name is a name like “coactivated.com”. It is the means by which visitors reach your website. For example, if you type “coactivated.com” into your web browser right now, you will arrive at the front page of this website. When you or the person you hired started your site, one of the first things that would have been done is to register a domain name. This typically involves the payment of a small annual fee to a company called a domain name registrar. In exchange for this fee, you get the right to use the domain name for as long as you keep up the annual payments.

The domain name is not the same thing as your website. It’s just a name. It’s like registering a business name for your company in the physical world. Getting a domain name does not automatically get you a website any more than registering a business name gets you a physical shop in the brick and mortar world.

What you or your web designers did when your website was created was to attach your domain name to the set of documents they created. When your visitors enter your domain name in their web browser, they see the set of documents.It’s the equivalent of putting a signboard with your business name outside your shop premises in the physical world. Together, the business name (as shown on the sign) and your physical shop premises constitute your shop. Similarly, in the virtual world of the Internet, your domain name and the documents created by your web developers constitute your website.
What happens if, in the physical world, you decide to move your shop to a new building? You basically need to rent shop premises in the new building, move your goods there, and attach your business name (and sign) to that new shop. When you do that, your shop will continue to function, with the same name, albeit in a new location.

It’s the same with a website. What you need to do is to get a new web host, put up your documents on that new web host, and point your domain name there. Once you complete that, you’ll have moved your site. The difference is that in the virtual world, your website will still have the same web address and you don’t need to tell your customers that you’ve moved.
To make sure you understand the concept behind what we’ll be doing later in this article, I’ve depicted the parallels between moving a physical shop (in the brick and mortar world) and a website (in the digital world) in the table below.

Step Physical World Virtual World (Website)
1 Rent premises in a new location (building). Get a new web host.
2 Move goods into the new premises. Transfer documents (web pages) to the new web host.
3 Put up sign board with your business name over the new shop. Point your domain name to your new web hosting account.

In other words, everything depends on whether you can point your domain name wherever you want. For that to be possible, you will need the login name and password for your domain registrar. Note that this is not necessarily the same as the login name and password for your web host. (It may be the same if your web host and registrar are one and the same company.)
Without the account name and password for your domain at your registrar, you cannot easily wrest your site away from whoever is currently holding it hostage. As mentioned at the beginning of this section, everything hinges on your having control of your own account at the domain registrar.
The registration of a domain name is the first step in creating your website, something to be done by you, and not something that is done by a web developer you hire (which I only list as an option in the third step). When you sign up for these things yourself, you’ll not only be properly registered as the owner of your own domain, you’ll also be considered by those companies (the domain registrar and the web host) as their customer. In such a case, even if you forget your account name and password, you can easily contact those companies to get the information and help you need.
On the other hand, if you have abdicated all your responsibilities to your web designer, and you have an unscrupulous designer, all the contact and ownership information held by your web host and domain name registrar may well point to him/her. Your web host and registrar will, in this case, not give you any information at all (since you’re not their customer; the designer is). Your only recourse in such a case is to negotiate with your designer if you can still reach him/her. Or you can get a lawyer.

For Those Who Signed Up with Their Web Host Themselves

If you only got a designer after you’ve personally signed up for a domain name and a web host, and you’re paying the bills directly to your registrar and web host, you probably don’t need to do the things mentioned in this article to regain control of your website.
Even if your web developer has changed the password for your web hosting account to lock you out, you can get it back. Simply contact your web host and explain the situation. You may have to verify that you’re the real owner, but that’s usually quite easy to do if you’re their customer on record and are paying the bills directly to them. Your web host will probably just change the password to a new one of your choosing, and you’ll have regained control of your site.
Of course, if your web host and your web designer are one and the same, this won’t work for you.

Issues to Think About When Reconstructing Your Own Website

Since you’ll be moving your website to a new web host, you’ll probably want to get a copy of your existing website (unless you plan to start from scratch). However, this is trickier than it may appear at first glance.

  • Legal Issues: Copyright of Your Old Web Design

    One of the things you’ll need to do if you simply want to move your existing website lock stock and barrel to a new web host is to find out who owns the copyright to your site’s design. There’s no way I can help you ascertain this. It depends on a lot of factors, most of which are, quite frankly, beyond my competence to determine, since I am not a lawyer.
    For example, it probably depends on the nature of the contract (as well as what is specified in the contract) between you and your web designer. It also depends on whether your web designer was lazy, and used an online site builder belonging to your existing web host, or some website template created by someone else, in which case it’s possible that neither your designer nor you own the copyright.

  • Technical Issue #1: Script-Driven or Dynamically-Generated Websites

    Another hurdle you’ll face in moving the website is if your website depends on computer programs that run on your web host’s computer (known as “scripts”) to generate a part or the whole of the site’s content.
    For example, if your website has forms of any kind, such as a shopping cart, a contact form, or a search engine form, it probably depends on one or more scripts. Blogs are also generated using scripts.
    Since you can’t log into your website via FTP (which is a method of transferring files to/from your website) or your web host’s control panel, you have basically no way of getting a copy of those scripts and a copy of any data stored in your web host’s database system, if any. While you may think that it’s a simple matter to use your web browser to save the pages on your existing website, and then copy those pages to your new web hosting account, you will find that your new site will not function the same way as it did previously if any part of your site depended on scripts. For one, the forms that are on your pages will no longer work. Neither will your shopping cart.

  • Technical Issue #2: Folders, Images, Style Sheets and JavaScript Files

    The appearance of your web page depends on many elements. Its content is contained in the file you see in your web browser (called the HTML file in webmaster lingo). The images on the page is kept in separate files on your website. The appearance is kept in yet another file, called a style sheet. Your page may also depend on JavaScript files kept in separate locations as well.
    As such, if you use your web browser to save the pages on your existing website, you will need to make sure you save all these additional files and put them in the correct folders matching the existing folder structure of your website. Otherwise, when you transfer your saved pages to your new web host, your website will not look the same.
    For the newcomer, it may not be easy to figure out how to save all the necessary elements that make up a single web page, and reconstruct it correctly on a new web host. The task is actually doable, and isn’t too difficult. But the problem is that requires a bit of technical knowledge. If you don’t already know how to read HTML, and don’t understand how file paths and URLs work, it’ll probably take you a lot of time to get it right. And even then, you would still have not solved the other issues mentioned above.

In view of this, you may find that it is easier to just redesign your website from scratch on your new web host. You may still want to save the pages on your existing website using your web browser so that you can reuse the words and/or pictures that were there (provided you own the copyright to those).
For those who are wondering how to save a copy of your existing website when you have no access to your current web host, just go to each page on your site in your web browser, click “File” from your browser’s menu bar, followed by “Save” or “Save As…” in the drop-down menu that appears. To save images, right-click the image, and click the “Save image…” (or equivalent) item in the menu that pops up. As mentioned above, this doesn’t actually save everything, and the saved web page will not look the same as that on your current site. But at least, hopefully, you’ll have a copy of some of your content and images.
Once you have done the above, move on to the next section.

Steps to Take to Regain Control of Your Website

To reiterate, in case you skipped the above explanation on the importance of having control of your domain name, make sure you have the account username and password of your domain name registrar before you do the following steps. There’s no point carrying out any of the steps below if you cannot log into your domain registrar. If you don’t even know what a domain name registrar is, or you don’t know which registrar you used to get a domain name, chances are strong that you won’t know your username and password either. In such a case, you won’t be able to use the steps below to get your site back.

  1. Get a New Web Host

    Since you want to move your website away from your current designer’s control or from your existing web host, you’ll need to sign up with a new web host.

  2. Point Your Domain to Your New Web Host

    Once your new web hosting account is set up, you’ll need to make your domain name redirect to that new location.
    This is the key step that wrests your website out from under your old web designer’s or web host’s control. Once you do this, your old site will no longer be accessible to you using a web browser. So if you want a copy of your old website’s pages, make sure you save them before you take this step.

  3. Redesign and Republish Your Website

    Next, you’ll need to redesign your website and publish it to your new web host.
    Alternatively, you can also hire another web designer (hopefully, an honest one this time) to do the redesign.

Protecting Your Domain

Even if you don’t plan to design your website yourself, you should at least register the domain name for your website yourself. Your domain name is one of the most important things you need to have control of when you start your website. With control over it, even if your web host cheats you, or even if your web designer tries to block you from updating your website, you can easily just move your website elsewhere. Without control over it, your only hope is to get a lawyer. The lawyer route takes a lot of time to resolve, not to mention money, and in that time, you’ll lose the sales you might have gained from your website.

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