Model releases can be confusing at times with questions like:
A model release is a document that you provide to your subject that gives the photographer to publish an image on a blog, website, social media, print magazines, or just about any medium in which the public can view that image. Generally the photographer will need a release whenever a recognizable image of a person is taken. There are exceptions such as newsworthy events or a public figure in a public location. If you took a picture of a crowd at a fire, you would not need a release from everyone in a crowd since the group is may be on public property and may be reported by a new agency. People in the group do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in these events. If you managed to take a picture on a political figure at a rally, he/she does not have an expectation that pictures will not be taken (in fact, he/she expects them to be taken). An example of a release can be downloaded here Model Release from the SLR lounge. A release 'can' offer you protection in the event of a civil lawsuit.
If you are an art lover or history buff and take pictures for your own use, then in 'many' cases you will not need a model release. You don't plan or printing them for public display, or selling them. The question you need to ask yourself though is, what if you take a picture that becomes valuable in the future? It definitely has happened and will continue to happen!
It is true that if you took the image, you own the copyright and have limited protection against it being stolen. This does not give you unlimited rights to use the image however you want. There have been many lawsuits on record relating to defamatory images made public, and now more than some other points in history people believe that they have a right to privacy in most areas of their lives (there are exceptions, see above). Laws relating to model releases vary greatly from state to state with some states having no written law relating to releases (eg. Maryland, Vermont). Some states have vague laws that suggest that a model release is needed such as Arizona and California. Other states such as New York and Pennsylvania specifically require a model release. A complete listing of state by state requirements may be found here State lists for Model Releases.
There are definitely different kinds of model releases. There are portfolio releases which simply state that images will be used for the purposes of self promotion such as shown here Self Promotion. Some models may be reluctant to sign a general release because he/she feels that the photographer will sell the image and make $$. There are releases for children which require that a parent sign the release found here Release for a child. There are of of course commercial releases that state that the photographer may sell the image if he/she chooses to do so such as in this release General release . Take special note in THIS release, the photographer specifically states how the image will be used. Although this is not always required, in general images can not be used in a defamatory nature. If a person feels that an image depicts them in an unsavory manner that person may have grounds for a successful law suit if the release does not specifically state the purpose(s) of the image.
If you are a photographer who makes sexually suggestive or explicit images, you will also need a 2257 release found here 2257
which clearly states that the subject of the image is an adult. Severe legal penalties can be imposed if the photographer fails to collect this information and RETAINS this information for inspection by law enforcement. Although the law is disputed by many, the intent is to limit child porn images. Elements of the 2257 release of course can easily be included in a general release. Some photographers will even take a picture of a model holding his/her drivers license for added protection.
How long do you need to keep releases? Once again, it will vary from state to state but some states actually may require proof of a release even after the death of a photographer! In general, once you get a release, keep it for as long as you are able, particularly important for images that may become famous or images of a sexual nature.
As a side note, certain properties will also require a release, as well as permission if you include a trademark of a company within the image.
Remember, releases are a way to protect the photographer, so don't forget! As a disclaimer, this is not meant to provide legal advice so contact a lawyer proficient in the arts for additional information.
- Bob Barford is a published photogapher based in Southern PA.