Model releases and property releases are simple legal agreements between a photographer and another person. The general purpose of a model or property release is to document the consent of the person to use their likeness, or the representation of a property, in a photograph. Ideally, releases should be signed before the photography takes place. A release allows the photographer to make and use the photographs for purpose(s) described in the release and can also contain other terms specific to the situation, such as fees or other consideration.
Depending on the intended use and type of photography, and whether the subject(s) of a photograph include people and/or buildings or other real property, different types of releases may either be absolutely necessary or generally advised, based on strict legal requirements and industry best practices.
In all cases, obtaining a release provides basic protection for the photographer and/or the designer using the photo. Photographers need to know about issues related to model and property releases before making photographs. Graphic designers need to know the status of a photo’s release(s), if any, before using that image in a design. If a photo is made of a person or property and used without consent, the photographer and/or designer could face legal action including lawsuits resulting in the payment of monetary damages.
A model release is designed to protect the privacy of an individual, and applies to any person photographed, not just professional or paid models. The model release expresses the consent of that person for you to photograph them and then use those photographs for some described purpose. The intended use of the photograph is generally considered to be elemental to the requirement to obtain a release.
Historically, you would always need a model release for any photo to be used in any kind of advertising or promotion, or any product packaging; essentially any “commercial” use. “Editorial” use—magazine articles, newspaper stories, etc.—did not require releases by law; true photojournalism certainly does not require model releases. However, if you make a photo of someone with the intention of using it for editorial purposes such as a school newspaper and then later decide to use that image in a web site banner ad, the person depicted in the photo can and might sue you.
So these days, if you are making or using pictures with one or more people in them, the status of the release is very important. Let the person know that you would like them to sign a release and have a form and pen handy—it doesn’t need to be embarrassing or complicated, but getting releases can be cumbersome if you’re photographing many people at once; technically, each person should issue a release. In some cases, you can use a general release ahead of time that will cover a large group by having people agree to the release when they initially register to participate.
Almost all legitimate stock photo agencies require you to provide proof of a signed model release when you’re marketing photos of people. A valid model release will include
1) the date the photos were made
2) the name and contact details for the model and photographer,
3) the agreed use of the photographs, and
4) details about the payment of fees and/or any other consideration offered in exchange for the usage. (And if no fee is to be paid, this must also be clearly stated.)
If the model is a minor, a parent or adult guardian must sign the release.
Private property has some of the same protections as do personal likenesses, with a few differences. First, generally speaking, if the specific view of the property is only visible from private property, you must have a release to make or use that photograph. You will need permission to gain access to the private property providing the view. If you are on private property taking photographs—in any direction—whether you’re photographing private or public property from that spot, there is a good chance you will be approached by security officers. Don’t expect them to sign a release.
If all or part of a structure is visible from public property, you usually can photograph it from that location and use the photograph without limitation. However, there are some notable exceptions. Some private buildings are famously known to have strict rules regarding the use of images containing those buildings, due to copyright and trademark registrations. If you photograph these structures and then publish the photos, they might come after you. (Of course, if you perform an online search for images of these structures, you’ll find many examples that clearly do not abide by these rules.)
Note: many zoos and botanical gardens restrict the use of photos made at the property to “personal use only”—you aren’t allowed to sell photos made at those locations. Because these are private property, this is their legal right.
Bottom line, if you’re taking photos of any gardens, building(s), bridges or structures that might not be available for unlimited use, check with the property manager first.
Many stock agencies require a property release, especially in cases where the photographs depict private buildings or iconic structures that may be under trademark. A property release may include
1) the date
2) Names and contact details for the property manager (or other authorized personnel) and the photographer
3) the address or coordinates of the property being photographed, along with descriptions of the structure or part of the structure allowed
4) details about agreed use and/or licensing terms for the images, along with any fees to be paid.
When in Doubt, Get it in Writing
A release is a legal document, albeit a very basic one, and depending on the people involved and where and when it’s executed there could be other legal implications affecting the status of the release.
Photographers and graphic designers should seek to ensure the legal implications of all the images they use, and additional contracts or agreements might also be appropriate depending on the circumstances. Check the legal requirements specific to where you live.
If you’re a photographer making images of people and properties—especially if you’re selling stock—you should always try to get a signed release. Carry some blank release forms with you when you’re out shooting; you can get sample release forms on the web.
Designers should check the release status of all the images you use in your designs, especially those that may attain high visibility. When using images downloaded from the web, always try to determine the release status of the image and, whenever possible, use images with properly documented releases.
Photography associations and trade organizations are great places to find information about model and property releases. You can also find lots more detailed information and discussion about model and property releases, as well as free downloadable forms, at various places online. Here are a few selected links:
This article is only a guide; I make no guarantee of the correctness of the information and have no liability pertaining to the use of this information. I am not a legal expert! You must determine the correct legal stance for your own situation; I advise you to confer with legal counsel.