You might want to watermark photos of your children

Nov 13, 2014 at 9:00 a.m. ET
Image: Maria Mora

It started innocently enough. I took a photo of my pouting infant and uploaded it to my Flickr account. A friend asked to share it on her blog. At the time, I had no idea that would start a bizarre chain reaction.

The other day, I unsubscribed from a shopping site. It brought me to a page asking if I was sure I wanted to unsubscribe. I blinked several times, wondering if I was losing my mind. Was that... my kid on the screen?

email with baby

Photo credit: Maria Mora

It was. It turns out a shopping website had taken the photo and used it without permission. I was able to resolve things within a few days, and they removed the photo, but it sparked my curiosity. I did a reverse image search and discovered my son's picture on hundreds of websites and pouting baby memes. Some were just small blogs, and others were bigger businesses. None had permission to use the photo, which is designated on Flickr as "all rights reserved."

I even found an Etsy shop selling a "fine art print" that used my son's photo as a reference.

art print of sad baby

Photo credit: Shaenabunceart

Once in a while I spend time reaching out to a few sites at a time. Most don't respond or take the photo down. One man got aggressive with me, insisting he had the right to use the photo because he found it on Google. He told me I shouldn't have posted the photo online if I didn't want people using it.

He's wrong, of course. Sharing a photo doesn't give anyone who stumbles across it the right to use it, especially for a commercial venture. But at the same time, I recognize it was incredibly naive to think my photos were safe just because I designated them as "all rights reserved."

Once a photo is online, it's there forever. If the idea of someone using a photo of your child for a commercial website — or worse, for some weird online role-play — bothers you, then use free software to watermark every single one of your photos before you upload them to a photo-sharing website. Your safest bet is to never share any photos of your kids at all, but how feasible is that when we live in a culture of rapid-fire sharing and connecting with friends and family online?

I can't change the fact that my son's face comes up on Google images as soon as you type "pouting baby," but you can do something about your kids' photos by being proactive from the start.

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