I am including a lot of links to Wikipedia that explain terms that may not be well understood.
We will all pass away some day and what becomes of our photographs...particularly our digital images after we are gone? Before computers and digital cameras- and especially the internet- our shoe boxes, cartons, portfolios, albums and envelopes that contained our original art, prints and negatives would be disassembled, dismantled and dispersed via family members. Unless people made a living from their images very few would have thought to include their photograph collections in a last will and testament.
Today is probably no different- in fact it's probably worse because our image collections build up much faster than before- so much so that we can't even keep track of them properly and content ourselves to let the images reside in the ephemeral environment of a computer. We can't even be bothered to print out even 'the best shots'...most people if asked wouldn't know how many images they even possess on their computers...I know I don't.This is compounded by how we share our images- via emails and online image galleries and social networking sites. Back in the old days you had to plan on who would receive a copy of any of your photographs and you would have to let the photo processing center know you want 'doubles' or x number of copies of a particular negative or colour slide. Nowadays it's simply a matter of copy/paste or drag and drop from the jpg file to another computer and from there on potentially into anyone's hands.
It gets worse still: who actually backs up their images to a safe location? When I talk to people about digital photography and bring the subject up most say "oh, my pictures are on my computer". When I hear that I usually suggest they get a portable/usb drive, copy their photos onto it on a regular basis, and keep the drive stored in a safe place with a label on it that identifies ownership..
It's far too complex a subject to say much more but this is what can happen to anyone's photographs (and images from scans) that just live on a computer: they can completely disappear in a computer crash which actually happens a lot. I personally know one person who got a lot of photos back from a crash because of a backup I had made. The sad thing is many of the photos are still retrievable if you know how to find them or have a good computer technician to go to..
Likewise I once foolishly allowed someone to keep copies of high resolution files on her computer and one day she literally disappeared from town. Her assets were liquidated and now I occasionally wonder if someone is printing out cards or posters based on the pretty images I had left on that computer...)
In case my point has not become apparent yet: We may own our pictures but it is very easy to lose them to unknown individuals even while we still possess the original files! Also, all pictures have potential value to greater or lesser degree - people reading should remember this..
The options for backups are much simpler than they were in previous years...besides using a burning program to transfer the image files to a labeled disc media (which have standardized holding capacities) we now have portable/usb drives of much greater capacity that just pop into a usb port and it's as simple as copy/pasting to get the images from the computer to the drive. Alternatively you can do what a friend of mine does- she keeps her images on the original memory cards and then buys new memory cards...that's a bit pricy but it certainly is simple! What is most important is labeling the cd, dvd, portable drive, memory card or whatever future storage media that comes up with the photographers name.
(I do not recommend storing images on an external hard drive because it can- and eventually will- succumb to breakdown. This has happened to me with two top of the line drives - right after the warranty expired! - and recovery was only possible because I had continued to maintain backups on cds. And those offers of online photo storage from various vendors...NO. NO. NO. This should never be considered as the sole option for storing images. I would not even consider it as a secondary backup...it is simply another place that is potentially open to theft from dishonest people and hackers.) .
I haven't really addressed the perils of sharing photos without any kind of identifying information such as watermarking or manually embedding copyright into them- that is a subject that ties directly into backing up and doing a basic identifying job of the media that contains your images but will have to be dealt with in a separate article.