One of the greatest synergies of all time happened when digital photography met the world wide web. Suddenly millions of people from around the world were able to upload billions of photographs from their cameras and show them to friends, family and complete strangers all around the planet.
Photo sharing and social networking sites such as Flickr and Facebook evolved and suddenly we can all keep in touch with each other 24/7 and share our photographic masterpieces with the world.
But all this convenience comes with its own problems. The first is copyright and the protection of your images. For the unwary there are attacks on all sides and before you know it you could end up like this little girl who found her face being used in an ad for Australia's Virgin mobile. They didn't have permission (not explicit) but because she had posted her photograph on Flickr under the Creative Commons license they really didn't need it. (Or did they? A lengthy court case will decide).
The first thing you can do when you sign up for these services is to read the fine print. For example Photo Attorney Carolyn E Wright has a post up at the moment (here) about how signing up for Facebook can give them permission to use your photos however they please, including advertising. I would avoid posting any pictures on sites with clauses like this in the fine print.
When you start posting images on Flickr you need to go to the Privacy settings on your account and choose what license to have your images under. If you have them under a Creative Commons License that means that anybody can use your pictures any way they like and you have no grounds to object. I recommend the All Rights Reserved setting for your best protection.
To minimise loss from theft there's not a hell of a lot you can do I'm afraid. Putting a big watermark on your pictures, or having text with your Copyright label on there might deter some people but others will just Photoshop it out without thinking twice about it. Your best option is to keep the images small (say 500 pixels or less on the longest side) and that way they can't be used for anything big. You can also name your digital files with your surname in them. All my files are named Dymond_date taken_camera sequence number. That way if the pictures do show up somewhere and the name of the file hasn't been changed somebody can find you.
As this becomes more and more of a problem and starts to affect big companies with money technologies will come through to help us track down theft of our pictures. One such technology still in the developmental stage is Tin Eye which is a great little tool to help you find your images on the web. Photographers all round the world are reporting infringements that they've found through this. They don't have a huge database of sites yet but they're working on it.
Despite all this seeming doom and gloom I think the benefits of putting your work up for people to see far outweigh the pitfalls. In the last two weeks I've had two bikes stolen off my back patio. One of them was my little boy's and he was devastated. At first I was really upset and angry but then I thought, why should I let some thieving scumbag ruin my day. I'm not going to give them that satisfaction and that is what I recommend you try and do with your pictures.
Prevent it as much as possible but realise that there's nothing much you can do to stop it completely. But continue to post your work and reap the benefits of getting feedback from your family, friends and fellow photographers.