Oct 17

Model Release Form Important Legal Protection for Commercial Photographers

A model release form is a commercial photographer’s savior; it gives photographers the legal right to do with their photography what they wish. If you aren’t currently using a release form with your human subjects, you could be limiting your future options to make money — or opening yourself up to a lawsuit if you do.

What is a Model Release Form?

In general, an author owns the intellectual property that he or she creates (unless an agreement to the contrary has been made). However, when human subjects are involved in the photography, something called “appropriation of likeness” comes into play, leaving the door open for a model to demand additional payment, should a photo you took of that model become a great commercial success.

A model release form does, literally, just that: it is a legal document through which the model releases any claim to the photograph and establishes that the photographer him- or herself maintains legal ownership of the works.

When should a Model Release Form be used?

There’s a legal answer for this, and there’s a logical answer.

The legal answer: whenever a photo is taken of an individual or group of people — any time the subjects are identifiable — and that photo is used for advertisement, a release form is your legal defense for using that picture for commercial purposes. It is not typically necessary to obtain a release if the photo will not be used commercially.

The logical answer: since no one can predict the future, it’s best to have a release on file for every photograph you take, just in case. You never know when you might be approached with a licensing offer. And if this happens five years or even six months after you initially took the picture, there’s another thing you might not know: how to track down your model to sign the release.

Of course, there are times when a release just isn’t necessary. A picture of a crowd, for instance, typically does not require release forms; courts have consistently found that commercial use of a photograph of a crowd in which individual faces cannot be identified is legally acceptable.

(Publishing a photograph of a crowd in which you can recognize individual faces is typically also legally acceptable — it’s hard to claim breach of privacy when you’re photographed in public yourself — but if commercial use of the photograph is a possibility, you’d better have releases on file for the recognizable people in the photo before they sue you for appropriation of likeness! And, for the record, the person in the photograph doesn’t have to be a celebrity in order for the courts to support appropriation of likeness.)


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