Model Release FAQ


DISCLAIMER: THIS IS NOT LEGAL ADVICE. I AM NOT A LAWYER. DO NOT DEPEND ON THIS.

Got a model release? Good. Got some questions? Here are some answers.

Why Is It Called A “Release”?

A model release releases the user of liability. Technically, it is just a “consent,” not what is legally referred to as a “release” or a “contract.” A “model release” is not actually a contract since only one party, the model, is bound by the terms, not the photographer.

Should I Have My Own Model Release?

Yes. If you are shooting for microstock and you use the microstock agency’s model release, that is protecting them, not necessarily you. You would be wise to have the model sign your own release as well.

What Is The Underlying Law?

The need for a model release comes from a body of common law known as the “Right of Publicity” which, in some states, protects the appropriation of a person’s likeness as a property right. This is an outgrowth of, but is different from, the “Right of Privacy,” which is not a property right.

The Right of Publicity is not federal law but state law, so it varies by location. In some states, everyone has publicity rights, but in other states only established celebrities have those rights, and in many states there are no publicity rights for anyone. But cases can conceivably be brought under the laws of any state involved in a transaction, so a photographer should not rely on their local law. Indiana, for example, gives publicity rights to anyone, even if they are not in Indiana.

What Does “Likeness” Mean?

The law protects more than just a person’s face, it protects everything recognizable about the person. This includes any aspect of their identity such as their name, voice, tattoos, outline/silhouette, mannerisms, signature, anything that has their likeness.

What About Outside the U.S.?

In the U.K. and some other countries, photographers can use photos without releases with more freedom. In France, Quebec in Canada, and other countries, photographers face more restriction.

Does The Model Get Copyright?

No. A model release does not affect the copyright in any way. You, the photographer, automatically get and retain copyright of your photos, and can decide how the photo gets licensed.

Even though a model is in the photo, the model has no rights over the photo itself. The model still needs to get the photographer’s permission to use the photo.

Does A Model Release Have To Include Certain Words?

No. Merely the intent of the consent is needed. A model release can be simply “Anyone can use my picture for anything forever.”

Do I Need A Witness?

By law, not necessarily. But most microstock agencies insist on having a third-party witness sign the model release. The third-party cannot be you (as you are the second party) but it can be another model. So, if you hire two models, they can each be a witness for each other.

Please Give Me A Standard Release

There isn’t such a thing. Use a client’s release and make your own.

What Is A Voucher?

Agency models sometimes bring along a “voucher.” This is partly a time sheet and description of the terms and prices, but it may also include a model release. This release is for the benefit of the agency; it does not necessarily protect you or your client. You, the photographer, should still have your own model release.

Do I Need A Model Release For Microstock?

Yes. It is a requirement for microstock agencies.

“All images containing recognizable people require a model release. There are no exceptions. Look at the image and ask yourself “Could any of these people depicted recognize themselves in this picture?” If so, you will need a model release. Sometimes the context of an image is enough to make a person recognizable, even if their face isn’t visible.”
iStockphoto

Does The Release Have To Be In Writing?

Practically, yes. In some states, a legal release can be verbal, or just implied by conduct. But the release must be in writing in many key states, such as New York, Illinois, Massachusetts, Texas, and Virginia. So, since many clients operate in such states, it is wise to get the release in writing.

Does A Model Release Restrict Me, The Photographer?

No. You are not signing it. Only the model, the signatory, is giving up something. You, the photographer, are getting something from the model that you didn’t have before, namely the model’s consent to use their likeness.

Should The Release Mention Payment?

No, although the releases of microstock agencies often do.

Mentioning payment only confuses things. What if you don’t pay, or you pay in cash, or you pay in trade with a CD sent by unregistered mail? You may still be OK in these instances but it’s not worth muddying the waters. Keep it simple.

What If A Model Refuses To Sign A Model Release?

That is the model’s perogative. If a model refuses to sign, then clearly state that the photos will not be used without the signed release, and let the model make the decision.

Experienced models are familiar with model releases and will be ready to sign. If you’re hiring inexperienced models, you should clearly mention before booking the model that signing a model release is a requirement.

What If A Model Objects To Part Of The Release?

That’s OK If it is your own release. Most photographer’s releases are generalized and overly broad anyway. You can discuss and agree on suitable changes. A client or a microstock agency, however, will generally not allow changes to their pre-approved legal document.

Can I Put Photos On My Website Without A Model Release?

Maybe. It depends on several things, such as the laws of your state and the subject matter. You might be OK if you are an amateur photographer, you don’t charge for your services, the model is clothed and over 18 and shown in a flattering way, you were in a public place, and you’re showing off recent work.

But the laws are a patchwork that you shouldn’t rely on so err on the safe side and get a signed model release. Particularly if you’re at the point of reading about how to sell those images online.

Can I Do Anything With The Images If I Have A Broad Release?

No. The model may have a case to complain if the usage violates other rights. Thus, avoid anything purposefully derogatory, untrue, offensive, or particularly sensitive. Just be the reasonable person you are.

When Is A Model Release Required?

If a person can say: “Hey! That’s me!”

For more details, please read When Is A Model Release Required?

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