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When you share a photo of your baby online, what can happen to it?

Clive Rose

He’s verified. He has 450,000 followers. He’s Instagram’s newest star.

And he’s 3 months old.

Yes, the son of Olympic icon Michael Phelps has his very own Instagram account. While some celebrities and athletes have taken great strides to shield their offspring from the spotlight, Phelps and model Nicole Johnson seem to have taken the ‘‘if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em’’ approach. Their son, Boomer, was sure to be a spectacle of fascination in Rio, where he was frequently swaddled in his mom’s arms while she cheered Phelps on to six more shiny medals.

Rather than try to hide the infant away, Boomer was decked out in patriotic swag and introduced to the world. The photo captions are even written in his voice: ‘‘Time to wake up!!! Daddy is racing soon!!!’’


Such adorable baby-bragging is sure to have many parents reaching for their own phones to hop on board with this ‘‘sharenting’’ trend. Chances are, their kids already have an online presence -- 92 percent of American parents post photos of their children online before they turn 2. Making separate accounts for pictures of their kid could be a courtesy to followers who don’t want to see a photo every time baby cracks a smile. But parents might not be considering the most important aspect of photo-sharing today: copyright.

When you share a photo of your baby online, what can happen to it?

When you take a photo, you own the rights to it. When you post it on Facebook or Instagram, you still own the rights to it. But remember when you breezed by the lengthy jumble of ‘‘terms of use’’ upon signing up for your account? On Instagram, when you click ‘‘agree,’’ you grant ‘‘non-exclusive, fully paid and royalty-free, transferable, sub-licensable, worldwide license to use the Content that you post’’ to Instagram. This means Instagram can use any photos you post publicly on your account, any time, for free.


Technically, other users cannot. If another Instagram user takes your photo and re-posts it on their own Instagram account without your permission, you can report this to the company and it will take down the photo.

But let’s say this photo-stealing user takes your photo and posts it somewhere outside of the Instagram app. This happened last year, when controversial artist Richard Prince took women’s Instagram photos, slightly altered the captions, blew them up into 6-foot-tall prints and sold them at a New York art show for more than $90,000 each.

Instagram responded: ‘‘On the platform, if someone feels that their copyright has been violated, they can report it to us and we will take appropriate action. Off the platform, content owners can enforce their legal rights.’’

Translation: It’s up to you hire a lawyer and try to get your photos back.

Sometimes that’s a simple process, trademark attorney Josh Gerben said. Under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, you can file a ‘‘takedown request’’ to a website that is violating your ownership rights to a photo.

‘‘But if someone takes your baby’s picture and starts sharing it all over the Internet, just practically, getting it off every website is going to require a lot of work,’’ Gerben said. ‘‘These things can spread like wildfire.’’

That’s what happened to 4-year-old Jameson Meyer. When he was diagnosed with a genetic disorder called Pfeiffer syndrome, his mother AliceAnn started a blog about his journey. She wanted to connect with other families raising children with this rare medical condition, which often results in abnormalities of the bone structure of the face and skull. Meyer posted many photos of Jameson and his sweet, big brown eyes.


Then someone turned his picture into a meme comparing Jameson to a pug.

‘‘I have been told not to post pictures of my child if I don’t want this to happen,’’ Meyer told the ‘‘Today’’ show. ‘‘I refuse to accept that. My child should not live by different standards simply based on his appearance -- no child should.’’

Even parents who have made a conscious choice to broadcast their children online have discovered how difficult it is to truly know what effect it has on them. When a reporter for New York magazine set out to find 10 former ‘‘viral sensations,’’ he called the family of Charlie Davies-Carr, of the famous ‘‘Charlie bit my finger’’ video. During the interview, Charlie, now 9, told his dad that it’s ‘‘scary’’ when strangers come up to him and say they’ve seen him on the family’s YouTube channel.

‘‘It feels like they’re spying,’’ Charlie says.

His dad seems surprised. ‘‘Is that really what you mean?’’ he asks Charlie. ‘‘They’re intruding on your life?’’

Yes, Charlie replies.

His dad admits they haven’t had a discussion about that before.

For most parents, sharing their children online is simply meant to be the modern way of sending photos in the mail, or keeping pictures in their wallet to pull out when people ask about their kids. If that’s the case, there’s a fairly simple solution: After you agree to the terms of use while setting up your Instagram account, go right to the settings page. Turn on the ‘‘private account’’ setting.


Though there is no way to know for sure that the photo won’t make its way somewhere else online, you can at least control who is seeing what you post. Accept only followers who won’t turn your infant into a horrible meme.