Are Model Releases Always Required?

Hand signing contractI am often asked if a model release is required for images of people and though there are some exceptions, I would advise you to always get a release if possible, especially if you plan to sell your work. Getting a release covers you for the obvious, of course but more importantly, for sales you may not have anticipated.

In the age of digital image dissemination, the potential audience for your images is endless. How many times have you seen an image – good or bad – go “viral” on the Internet and suddenly millions of people are looking at your photo? It happens every day. Now suppose one of those viewers wants to purchase your image for commercial use but you don’t have a model release. If you can’t obtain one then you shouldn’t risk selling the image. Most companies that will purchase your image require a release anyway so you’d lose the sale, and potentially a lot of money. Don’t think it can happen? I know of a photographer who was contacted by the management of [awesome rock god] Bob Seger, to buy an image she shot for use on the cover of his new album. While the image had no people in it, had she not been able to provide a model release, there would have been no sale. And there wouldn’t have been the additional sales generated when Mr. Bob “Night Moves” Seger himself browsed her online portfolio and chose additional images for the liner notes of the CD!

Following industry standards, for any work that will appear in consumer or trade magazines, newspapers, or educational books; you generally do not need a model release. This is also true for photographic exhibits. These are considered educational/informational uses. Personally, in the litigious society of today, I still wouldn’t risk it in a consumer/trade magazine or book. Sure, you might win a challenge in court but you’d still lose money defending yourself!

Photos to be used in commercial applications such as advertisement, brochures, posters, greeting cards, catalogs, postcards, kiosks sales, trade shows, web sites, or the like do require a model release from the subject in order to be legal.

Is a photo sold to a newspaper or through an exhibit considered “commercial use” since there financial gain? Technically no and many photojournalists do not obtain releases; nor do most photographers in general editorial and fine art fields. On the other hand why risk the financial burden of litigation if a model release is easily obtainable?

I’ve included some examples of model releases and other forms photographers may fine useful here. You are free to edit, use and distribute them as you like but please not you use them at your own risk. I make no claim to their legitimacy or legal standing for anyone’s use.

Here’s a package of release forms I’ve used in the past that can get you started in making your own forms. The files are in text (.TXT) format only to allow you to format them in a Word, PDF or other document to suit your needs. I make no claim as to ownership of these files and you use them at your own risk. I recommend having all forms and contracts you use in your business reviewed by an attorney or competent legal adviser to ensure they meet your needs and are valid before a court should you be involved in litigation of your work.

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