First off, let me be clear. There are many situations when it makes sense to own the source code to any web asset a business may own. Integrated web services with back office operations, complex enterprise security or just a really unique web experience where the code becomes intellectual property. These are all examples where ownership, title rights and interest to every line of code, is recommended.
But, in terms of most web site needs, do business owners really want to own the actual technology that their website site is on? There are many in “the industry” that would find that question profound. I think it’s a question worth asking and one that isn’t asked enough.
Before one can know if source code ownership is right for your business, there’s a basic understanding of expectations when owning a website. For those that have never owned a website this may be surprising, for those that do it certainly won’t.
Your website is not a product. It’s not a static deliverable that will be turned over on a DVD at the end of a process. You will always have a “website list” of changes you want to make. You will want to make changes to your website 30 days after you go live. Your website will never be done. Your website is more service than product. It needs to be loved, cared for, nurtured and only with that, will it be successful. Once you understand this, owning source code doesn’t start to look like a good solution.
The myth about source code ownership is the perception that owning it mitigates risks. That owning source code, somehow will ensure your website’s success. Or that owning source code shields and protects you from your web development agency. Let’s explore each of those and why they are oftentimes a myth.
- Myth: Owning source mitigates risk: The ultimate risk of a website project is not whether the project comes in on budget or whether it hits a specific deadline (although these are important). The ultimate risk when building a website is whether the finished website actually provides value to your business or was just an expensive marketing engagement. What’s the goal(s)? What type of users are you trying to attract? What do you want them to do? These are important components to your website, not whether you’ll own the database schema or not. Owning the source code can increase risk because the more you get into the technical weeds, the more your marketing project becomes a software development project. The more you get caught-up in source code and “Drupal vs Joomla” discussions, the less important marketing questions get answered.
- Myth: Owning source ensures success: As explained above, it will probably have very little to do with your website’s success. Having been in this business for close to 20 years, I rarely see websites fail because of which CMS platform was selected. But I’ve seen website projects fail when they turn into mini software development projects. I’ve seen websites fail when no strategy is developed and no goals are established.
- Myth: Owning source code provides protection: Here’s the thing with this one. Even when you use open source platforms like Drupal or Joomla the quality of the code is still based on the level of service provided by the development company. Owning the source code just ensures you’ll own whatever your web development firm builds, for better or worse. Many business owners feel they need this ownership to protect them from being “tied down” to a specific web development firm. But in reality, the moment they select a web firm to build that new website, the ARE tied down. This happens whether you own the source code or not. The shelf-life of your website’s technology is directly tied to your relationship with your development firm. The dirty little secret in this industry is that programmers and firms that do programming, don’t like working in other people’s code. It’s the truth. You take your website to a different development firm, they will want to re-do the code so they can better maintain and support you as a client. Or the amount of time that it takes your new firm to learn the code is too costly and you might as well redo the site anyway.
The level of happiness and overall sanity in owning a website will be driven more by the service from your web development company than anything else. Web technologies and Internet success is not a product that a firm will deliver to you in a single project. It’s a long term partnership with a firm that will provide exceptional service, that is responsive to your needs and that understands your business. Owning source code will probably not be a factor of success for your website. Success will come from selecting the right partner for your business and evaluating the level of service they can provide, not what kind of product they can produce.