Responsible Online Family Photo Sharing

John McCrickert and Elizabeth McGinnes

[Editor’s note: Genealogy expert Thomas MacEntee discusses some of the issues involved in sharing family photos online.]

Given recent discussions in the genealogy community concerning copyright, theft of content and better ways to share family history research, the discussion always makes its way to the topic of copyright and family photographs. A disclaimer: the information below should not be construed as legal advice. These are my own personal and professional observations in the genealogy field related to copyright and digital images.

There are many issues to consider and despite what might seem like conflicting information, I’ve come up with various ways to share my old family photos online. These methods may not work for everyone; readers should develop methods with which they feel most comfortable.

After the Scan…The Share!

I scan a lot of family photos using my Flip-Pal and once I’ve created a digital library of the images, I’m looking for ways to share them. My audience is most often family members, but there also are times when I would like to post these images to social media sites or on a public online platform.

The most important realization for me has been this: once I post a photo online or publish a photo, I basically give up control of that image. Even emailing a photo to a family member can result in the loss of control, despite my requests not to share the image with others. If you do not want others to use your photos, don’t share them.

What Do You Want To Do With The Family Photo?

Before getting into any discussion on copyright and family photos, take a minute to review how you plan to use the digital image. Are you going to simply build a library of images for your own personal use for your genealogy research? If so, you really have no concerns about copyright and sharing the images.

But once you consider publishing the image—and publishing doesn’t just mean book publishing, it can also encompass posting online—then you really do need to consider all the implications of photo usage.

Old Photos vs. Recent Photos

There is a huge difference between sharing older family photos of your ancestors and more recent photos—especially those depicting living persons. Just as you would with information as part of your genealogy research, you need to be aware of the privacy issues involved with disclosing information about someone who is still alive.

One of the attractions of social media platforms such as Facebook, is the ability to quickly share information, including photos, and get instant feedback. Many love the immediate response but don’t often realize their audience and who is seeing the post.

A critical issue regarding online images involves photos of young children in the family. Many grandparents and older relatives want to share photos of newborns and toddlers but they often do not ask permission from the parents before doing so. Remember that once you post a photo, you basically lose control of what others can do with that image.

Think before you post and make sure you’ve covered all the bases in terms of other family members feeling comfortable with your online photo usage.

What Are Your Giving Up When You Post?

Many of us are quick to share photos online, but I doubt we read the terms of service for those websites. Do you really understand what that site can and can’t do with your uploaded image? Can they add it to their database and keep it there even after you delete the image? Can they use your photo for promotional purposes such as a sidebar ad in Facebook or some other site? Make sure you fully understand how your image will be used by the website and by others.

Track Photo Usage by Others

Once you’ve posted an image, despite the true lack of control that you surrender, you can still try to stay on top of the image’s usage. Two of the best tools can be found at Google.

  • Google Alerts notifies you via email when new content matching your keyword search criteria appears on the Internet. Make sure you are naming your photos and adding other descriptive information such as metadata.
  • Google Image Search allows you to upload your image and then Google will look for a match online from its database of images. The matching process is one in which the image is analyzed and Google creates a mathematical model based on shapes, lines, proportions, colors and other elements. Note: your uploaded image will not be added to Google’s image database—it is only used for purposes of finding a match.

My Personal View on Posting Photos

Over the past few years, my views regarding family photos and sharing has evolved. I no longer consider myself as the owner of old family photos…I can’t take them with me and they do no good sitting in a box or as a digital file on my computer. I see myself as a steward or caretaker for my photos. I share them on various sites and I ask for attribution and credit when others share them. I realize that my ancestors could be someone else’s ancestors as well.

I do however try to guard against commercial entities using my images for promotional purposes. This means when a company has a photo contest, I carefully read the terms and conditions before submitting an entry. Also, when I upload photos to a site I try to understand what happens with the photo, even after I delete it from the site.

Tips on Best Ways to Share Family Photos

Sharing family photos which you’ve scanned using the Flip-Pal mobile scanner is fun and can really expand your family history research. Here are some ways you can share responsibly:

  • Understand Copyright Issues. Reading this article is a good first step, but do more research, especially regarding copyright laws since they vary from country to country.
  • Research the Photo’s History. For older images, especially those depicting family members who have passed away, do your homework and research the photo’s history. Who took the photo and is that person still living? Did a professional photographer take the image and was it a work for hire? Who actually owns the copyright to the photo? You may not be able to answer all of these questions, but it will allow you to make a better decision as to posting the image.
  • Request Permission Before Posting. If your photo shows living persons, even if the snapshot was taken 50 years ago, as a courtesy make sure that person agrees to having the image posted. Explain how you are using the digital image, who will see it and what others can do with the image.
  • Read the Terms and Conditions of Websites. What are you giving up once you’ve posted your photo to a sharing site or as part of a contest? Are you allowing a company to use the image for advertising? How would you feel if Grandma’s face was used to sell a product? Also have an exit strategy and know what happens when you remove a photo—is it still part of the website’s database?
  • Watermark Your Photos. One option is to use a photo-editing program to place a watermark diagonally across the digital image. In addition, place a note below the posted photo letting viewers know they can contact you for more information about the image.
  • Post a Usage Statement. If you have a website or blog, make sure you have a posted policy on how your posted images can be used.
  • Monitor Your Posted Photos. Use various tracking options such as Google Alerts and Google Image Search to periodically track how your posted images are being used.


  • Can I Use Someone Else’s Work? Can Someone Else Use Mine?
    U.S. Copyright Office
  • Copyright and the old family photo
    The Legal Genealogist
  • How to Create a Google Alert
  • Photography and Copyright Law
    Ken Kaminesky Photography
  • Search By Image
    Google Image Search
  • Using Images: Copyright and Fair Use
    MIT Libraries

Image: John McCrickert and Elizabeth McGinnes, abt. 1910. Image in possession of Thomas MacEntee. Used by permission.

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