If you’ve worked with models, studios, media companies, fashion brands and others in the public eye, you’ve definitely encountered a model release form. This can range from a single page of simple text to a hefty document, written in the most highbrow English.
As a photographer, it’s important to know when you need one.
What Is It and Why Is It Important
A model release form, at its most basic, is a contract. The stipulations in the contract outline what you can and cannot do with the images. They offer protection to the photographer, the client, and even those being photographed.
It releases you from future liabilities and possible lawsuits. These range from invasion of privacy to defamation of character.
This is a crucial step within the realm of commercial photography, allowing (or forbidding) the uses of images for the purposes of promotion or sales. There is no law requiring a signed agreement between a publisher, photographer or a model.
When Do You Need a Model Release Form
How Will the Picture Be Used?
Knowing how the image will be used is one way to know if you need a model release form. If you plan to use your work commercially, then you definitely need one. If no, then you don’t. It sounds simple, yet it can become very complicated.
A published image does not, in and of itself, automatically mean commercial use. For example, work appearing in newspapers, educational books, and consumer or trade publications do not need a model release. These published areas count as editorial, or “fair use.”
Commercial use includes advertisements, catalogues, brochures, web use, greeting cards and in-house newsletters, et al. For this commercially, licensed usage, you definitely need a model release. The exact ins-and-outs of what makes an image commercial or not can be confusing.
Let’s use an example. Let’s say that you have photographed a well-known politician, but did not acquire a model release. You sell the image to a local newspaper, who is using the image alongside an article written about the said politician.
The image accompanies a news story, so this counts as editorial usage. Money changing hands doesn’t automatically render the image and usage as commercial.
However, if the politician decides they want the image to use for an ad campaign, this requires a model release. Here, we see the same image used for two different purposes.
How the photograph is going to be used is, therefore, the most important aspect of whether you need a model release or not. The image below, for example, could fall under both editorial and commercial usage.
If the image appears in a newspaper or online article about fashion trends in Paris, it counts as editorial. Yet, if the same image appears in the same newspaper, but acting as part of an advertisement for Parisian tourism, you need a model release form. The image has crossed over to the commercial side.
Here, if this image below was used to show the attendees of a concert, no model release is needed. But if this image was used to promote a specific product, such as ear plugs, it falls under commercial purposes.
Can the Subject Be Identified?
The other area to think about is if any of the subjects in your image are identifiable. Are they obviously recognisable and clearly the subject of the image? If the answer is yes, you need a model release. If they aren’t, then you don’t need a model release.
But, as we have seen above, there is a hazy line between the two opposing areas.
There is more than one way to identify a subject. The most obvious is their face, but it can also include tattoos, characteristic marks on the skin, silhouettes, uniforms and even location. Here, you still need a model release form.
The images below first appear to not have any identifiable subjects, meaning there’s no need for a model release form, regardless if used for commercial or editorial publishing.
But we can identify the musician based on his posture, body language, stature and choice of instrument.
Someone might recognise the tattoo artist, whose face we cannot see, by the distinct shape, size and design of the body art.
As for these hockey players, their parents could tell who was who straight away, even with eye protection and guards. This is something you really need to be aware of.
When/Where Was the Photograph Taken?
This is another area that might require a model release form, even if it seems like it shouldn’t. You don’t need model release forms for public spaces such as parks, fairs, festivals, or streets. This is especially the case if they are going to sit in a portfolio, or exist as a print on my wall.
However, if you think that you may use that image one day for commercial purposes, it is worth getting a model release form, if you have identifiable subjects in your image. Better safe than sorry. You may have a saleable image which you can’ t use otherwise, and you may never see the people in the image again.
Street photography does not require a model release form, even if the face is recognisable. But if you intend to use them for commercial purposes, then a model release is necessary.
Legally, you can photograph anyone in a public setting, but it may not always be a good idea. Those under 18 need a signature from their parent or legal guardian.
What Should Your Model Release Form Say?
A model release form is a contract that allows the commercial usage of images. There is a basic idea of what needs to be in this contract, but the streets differ somewhat between states and countries. There are so many model release forms and resources out there, we strongly recommend not creating your own.
The idea with the contract is that it protects the interests and the rights of both parties. It is a two-way street, helping both parties, and safeguarding them against unwanted actions.
You are, after all, asking those photographed to relinquish their right or claim over how, where and when these images are used.
This can be a big deal, and you should prepare yourself to reimburse them somehow. This can mean money, via a lump sum or a cut of the profits. It can also mean prints or anything else you agree on.
The photographer might not be the publisher of said image, so those authorised to publish the images on the photographers’ behalf also need consent.
Going back to our original example, if that politician uses your image for their book cover, you are not the publisher. In this case, you are licensing the image to the publisher. Therefore, you need permission from the photographed subject for a third party to use it also.
A model release form should be short and sweet. It needs to contain the photographed persons’ name, address, phone number and witness. There are much longer versions, used for more important, commissioned work. The shorter versions are more for unplanned photographs.
Do not Forget
Keep these forms forever. These forms do not have a statute of limitations, and therefore don’t run out. You will always need to present it when you want to use or sell the image. Also, it will stop legal proceedings or allow you to defend yourself if ever sued.
Some people may be hesitant in signing these forms, as the contract doesn’t state exactly where and when you will use it, only that you can use it anywhere, at any time, for anything. You will need to respect their decision if they refuse.
Taking photographs of a model or group of people will be easier than photographing random people in the street. Have your subjects fill out the form beforehand, if photographing for commercial reasons. If they say no, the photography session doesn’t take place, saving you a whole bunch of time.
A note from Josh, ExpertPhotography's Photographer-In-Chief:
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