Model releases : the basics

Young_Zambian_lady_seated_profileImagine – you’ve hit the photographic jackpot. You’ve just sold a candid portrait, taken on Brighton beach, for an advertising campaign. It’s a generous fee, so now you can afford that new lens.

If only life was that simple. Without the written permission of your subject, you can’t go selling pictures of them for commercial use. Or if you do, they’re likely to sue you and the publisher.

So let’s start again. As a skilful photographer, you’d like to turn your hobby into a profession – or at least make enough money to buy new equipment. You’ve tried weddings and commissioned portraits, but what you really enjoy taking are photos of people going about their daily lives. If you’re going to sell those photos, you need to know when it’s necessary to obtain a model release (the written permission of the people in your photos).

The key question is how a photo is going to be used, not its content. A signed model release is only essential for commercial use. Let’s take three scenarios for the candid beach portrait:

  1. You took the picture for a personal project. It’s now on show at a local gallery and print sales are going well. Although money has changed hands, a model release isn’t needed. In the USA, the Constitution protects ‘artistic exhibitions and publications’ as a form of free speech. To the best of my knowledge, other countries take the same approach.
  2. The Brighton Argus has used the portrait in an article about local tourism. Publication in a newspaper is editorial (not commercial) use, so once again a model release is not required. The payment of a fee is irrelevant.
  3. Finally, the Tourist Board saw the portrait and liked it. They wanted to use it on a poster advertising the attractions of Brighton and the surrounding area. This is commercial use and a signed model release is needed, to protect the photographer and publisher.

When the photo was taken, you probably didn’t foresee how it might be used. Clearly though, having a signed model release would make it more saleable. Often stock agencies and libraries won’t even accept photos with people in them, unless they come with a model release.

This has been a basic introduction to model releases, designed to point you in the right general direction. The rules vary in different countries, so you’ll need to do your own research. In the meantime, I wish you the best of luck with your venture.

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