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Lifestyle Stories

Get permission before copying family photos

Tribune correspondent
Published:   |   Updated: March 23, 2013 at 05:43 AM

One of the most exhilarating elements of searching for ancestors is finding new cousins who will share stories and photographs from their line of the family.

In their excitement, researchers sometimes rush to share the new discoveries with everyone in the family - and e-mail themselves right into a legal minefield.

Photographs belong to the person who created them or the person's heirs. This applies both to professional and amateur photographers. When customers go to the local drugstore to copy photographs at the do-it-yourself kiosk, a warning appears on the screen and users must click to indicate they understand it is illegal to copy photos without permission.

Unfortunately the same caution doesn't pop up on the computer screen before a researcher hits the "send" button to zip the treasured photo to every cousin online.

It is the responsibility of each researcher to understand photograph copyright laws and to get in the habit of asking permission before sharing. There are two ways to handle this. When a cousin sends a photograph, thank her by return e-mail and then ask her permission to share it with other family researchers.

Create a folder on your computer and give it a label such as "Photo Permissions." Put copies of the request and the response e-mails into the folder. Years from now, when someone asks for a copy of the photo, a quick check in the folder will show whether sharing is an option.

The other way to handle this is to file your photograph and not worry about getting permission until the need arises. The problem with that is the owner of the copyright may have moved or changed e-mail addresses or may even be deceased. Copyright doesn't die with the owner: It passes to the heirs of the estate. Getting permission now becomes a real hassle.

Properly processing photographs when you receive them is important, too. Set up another folder on your computer and label it, perhaps, "Heritage Photographs." Under that folder, create individual folders for each surname on the family tree.

Once the photograph has been placed in the folder, look closely at its file name. The sender may have named it something generic, such as Photo 1. Rename it with helpful information, such as "Alfred James Family."

The next steps differ depending on whether you use a PC or a Mac.

For PC users: Right click on the photograph and select "Properties." A screen with two tabs will appear. Open the Summary tab and a screen appears with spaces to enter Title, Subject, Author, Category, Keywords, and Comments. This prompts the researcher to ask some questions of the cousin who sent the photograph. When and where was the photograph taken?

The answers might go under Title by becoming "Lake Lanier Family Gathering, 1900" and the Subject becomes "Alfred James Family." The author may be unknown. The comments section provides a place to record the names of everyone in the photograph (indicating left to right and front row to back rows). Record the name and contact information for the person who sent the photograph here, too.

The keyword slot provides an opportunity to leave a trail for finding the photo in the future, when you have hundreds of old family photos (it's OK to be optimistic!). James Family and Lake Lanier would make good keywords. But also add the name of the person who sent the photograph. A newly discovered cousin, Michelle Griffith, sent a picture of her great grandmother. "Griffith" is a keyword on this picture.

Later, I might want to see all the photographs she has sent. I can click on the Start button (lower left screen of the PC) and then "Search." The computer will ask "What do you want to search for?" and I simply enter "Griffith" in the search box. The computer will find all the photographs I tagged with that keyword.

For Mac users: Set up keywords by going to iPhoto and selecting a photo by left clicking on it. Go to the toolbar and left click on Window; select Keywords and enter appropriate words. To search for keywords, enter them in the search slot at the bottom of the display page.

Back on the main iPhoto screen, right click on a selected photo. Select "Show File." A thumbnail appears. The information that pops up allows a click on "More Info." A new screen contains a "Spotlight Comments" section where you can identify the people in the photo. This same screen displays when the photograph arrived in your computer and the name of the sender along with his e-mail address. Under comments, you might note whether you have permission to share.


Sharon Tate Moody is a board-certified genealogist. Send your genealogy questions and event announcements to her in care of Getaway, The Tampa Tribune, 200 S. Parker St., Tampa, FL 33606 or stmoody0720@mac.com. She regrets that she is unable to assist wit

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