Hi Dr. Irwin,
Thank you for your question.
These type of disputes often come up. Sometimes, the web designer will have a contractual right to own the website. You assert in your question that there is nothing in writing which would give the web designer this right.
However, the question will be determined by the language of the written contract
(assuming there is one).
of the website is in two parts (1) the domain name, and (2) the actual web page design. The web page design is the subject of copyright protection because it is a creative work.
The first question that must be asked is whether the written agreement contains any language which would make the web designers work a "work for hire." Where it is a "work for hire", then copyright law means that the website would belong to you. If it is not a work for hire, then the copyright still belongs to the web designer. To be a work for hire, the written agreement must be specific on this issue.
Where the contract is silent on this issue, then the law provides that the web designer has a copyright ownership in the web site. If you assisted in writing the content of the website or the design to a substantial degree, then you can claim that you are a joint owner.
Please let me know if you have any further questions. Please also kindly consider rating my answer positively so that I am compensated for my work by the website. Rating does not cause an additional charge and does not prevent us from further discussing your questions.