[Editorial] What Happens to Your Online Photos When You Die?

Social media has become a worn out word in recent years, but there is no denying its penchant for worming its way into most aspects of our lives. Technology has evolved to such a point that we no longer need to be sitting next to our friends in order to bore them with our vacation pictures; we can do it through the power of the internet!

All joking aside, social media has revolutionized sharing. Photographers and artists specifically have greatly from social media. Instagram, love it or hate it, is huge. Flickr is a massive branding and portfolio-sharing tool. Even Facebook, despite complaints of low-resolution images, is highly valuable to modern artists. Recall the timely image of Steve Jobs’ face overlaid on the Apple logo. Had it not been for social media, that image would not have spread like wildfire and earned the designer several job offers in a twelve-hour period. Without YouTube, a certain iPhone themed fashion shoot would not have reached the viral masses and subsequently led to the greatest photo news site of all time had social media not been a part of everyday life.

  

Steve Jobs Tribute
Without social media, graphic artist Jonathan Mak would not have become an overnight internet sensation.

   

But despite all the good digital sharing can do, sharing your greatest works online might not work out in the long run. What happens to all that information, including uploaded photos, after you die?
We all share information every day, especially us photographers. We take an awesome portrait and then we post it to Facebook or Flickr to commemorate our success and get critiques and opinions. After just a few months, you can imagine how easily one would amass a large library of images, many at full resolution, on a personal photo-sharing site. At least it appears to be personal.

You see, even though you control your username and password, your data is still stored on a company’s servers. They still have access to your files, and they have power over your information if you were to meet with an untimely end.

  

Facebook Privacy 1
Facebook Privacy 2
Your information is already everywhere and it won't stop existing even after you enter the great beyond.

   

Facebook’s policies dance around what happens to a dead user’s data. If you don’t have a username and password, they won’t allow you to delete accounts in the event of a death. They will not issue username and passwords to survivors. That would be a violation of their terms of service. You can have the page memorialized, but the history of that user as well as anything they uploaded stays “safely” in Facebook’s protective grasp.

  

Flickr
Flickr, one of the largest photo sharing sites on the web, is owned by Yahoo!, who has had some shaky history when it comes to giving up information.

   

Flickr, a Yahoo! company, at first seems to be a little nicer and more open when it comes to their policy:

"No Right of Survivorship and Non-Transferability. You agree that your Yahoo! account is non-transferable and any rights to your Yahoo! ID or contents within your account terminate upon your death. Upon receipt of a copy of a death certificate, your account may be terminated and all contents therein permanently deleted."

But as nice as it sounds, it's not really so simple. Flickr will maintain your data unless you physically send their Human Resources department a copy of a death certificate. That sounds like a lot of trouble, and it doesn’t appear to be sure fire either. In 2005, a family asked Yahoo! for login and password information for their son, a Marine who died in Iraq. Yahoo refused to give that information, citing the company’s privacy standards. In the end, the court ordered Yahoo! to release the information, but not until after the long and tedious judicial process. How many families will have to go through this rigamarole in the future as more and more users of social media potentially pass away?

  

500px
500px is a newcomer to the industry and their terms of service are a little bare when it comes to transferable rights.

   

Another popular photo sharing site is 500px, and since they are based out of Canada, their rules are a little different. They do not cover death of users specifically in their terms of use, but I did glean the following:

“The Terms is not assignable, transferable or sublicensable by you except with 500px's prior written consent. 500px may transfer, assign or delegate the Terms and its rights and obligations without consent. The Terms shall be governed by and construed in accordance with the laws of Ontario, as if made within Ontario between two residents thereof, and the parties submit to the exclusive jurisdiction of Ontario courts.”

Essentially, since they have no written rules regarding death of users, they aren’t really bound by anything. And they reserve the right to adjust their Terms whenever, so we will just give them the benefit of the doubt on this one. Hopefully they will eventually add a section regarding survivorship. Also, these aren’t the real legally binding terms. Just the “human” version as they put it.

What happens all your personal information and photos that these companies refuse to give up? I can’t say, and right now there may not be an answer. But the property is yours. You made it, and in many cases, you lived it. The very fact that the information becomes part of a corporation after you die really shakes me. These entities may not do anything with your information and your photos now, but what about in the future? That beautiful landscape photo you took may end up as a default computer background on the next Windows OS. Likely? Probably not. Possible? Of course it is. All these photo sharing sites have clauses that allow them to redistribute your images for promotional purposes. Will your family be able to fight it? Will they even try? Managing social networks is likely the last thing on a family’s mind when they are mourning the death of a loved one.

The lack of digital asset management regulation after death is being worked out in legislation, but nothing has become of it yet on a national scale. Today, there are only five states that have active laws covering survivorship of digital information- Oklahoma, Idaho, Rhode Island, Indiana, and Connecticut. Connecticut was the first to make such a law in 2005, but it’s not particularly up to date. It covers email accounts, but nothing like blogs, photo sharing sites, and social media. A judge could rule in a defendant’s favor, but would you want to leave the future of your digital assets up to the whims of a judge?

Of course, much of this can be avoided if we all shared username and login information with our next of kin for every site we sign up for and share data on. But then it can be asked, do you really want your, say, mother to have access to your Facebook or even your Flickr? Having been in college and the fact that evidence of my exploits still lives on digitally, I can affirm that I would be very uncomfortable with that.

There are resources for managing your digital assets, but they aren’t free and honestly, because there is no legislation, none of it is sure to work unless you get very legal with the process. Legal is never cheap. In this day and age, the last thing most of us need is another bill.
What do you think of digital rights to survivorship? Is this a big deal, or are we all just a little too concerned with privacy? As former CEO of Sun Microsystems Scott McNealy once said “You have zero privacy anyway.”

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5 Comments

Pros concerned with this should upload their photos only to their own website or portfolio. Relying on Facebook should only be for the beginners. If I could, I would take back every picture I've ever uploaded on the net and place them on a home server. Register a domain and create a web with the pictures I want people to see, having complete control over my property... That's how it should be IMO

I disagree on Facebook being for beginners - Facebook is a great marketing tool for many professionals who get a bucket load of work through it.

Putting your photos on your own server may get around a third party's T&Cs and claiming that photo for themselves, but it still won't stop copyright theft. Putting an image out there in any format, it is at risk of theft - whether it's someone who takes a photo of a print hung up in a gallery (and then prints out that photo - it may not be the best quality, but it happens) or someone who downloads it on a computer. The only way to totally protect an image is to never show it to anyone, anywhere, ever.

By putting up low resolution versions with a watermark and EXIF/IPTC data will make it less likely for anyone else to want to use it. Anyone uploading a high resolution (3000px along the longest edge at 300dpi for example) image to Facebook for example, is just asking for it to be "stolen".

Does the T&Cs on the various sites somehow get around copyrights? Seeing as copyright lasts 70 years after the author's death, can't the estates' inheritor use copyright as a way of getting the info taken down?

Shawn C's picture

I think the solution is that all providers of these services should be required on an annual basis to confirm that you wish for the account to continue.  If there's no response within 90 days (this would solve the problem with family needing the login after you die), or if you respond by saying cancel, then all the information must be deleted.

Looking to for-profit technology companies to solve social problems may not be the most productive route.

I have begun keeping a cheap USB stick in the same envelope as my will, and on the stick is a spreadsheet with all my social networking login info, and the password to my phone. Whomever is tasked with cleaning up after my life doesn't have to try to wrest information out of the companies, but can just login with my creds and do what they feel needs to be done.