Photography is everywhere today, and with it comes a string of subsectors to account for. One of these sectors is the model release, which is a fundamental part of photographing legally. Knowing the contingencies attached to the photograph model release, and where they are needed, like at events, is paramount to remaining within the boundaries of the law.
Do You Need a Model Release for Event Photography? At events, two factors dictate whether a model release is needed: if the individual(s) is identifiable, and the purpose of the image(s). If the individual(s) in the photo is identifiable, or the content is being used for the promotion of something, a model release is likely necessary.
Although maintaining the general rule of thumb mentioned above is a strong guide to determining the necessity for a model release, there are a handful of exceptions and special cases that venture beyond it. With legal deviations everywhere nowadays, holding onto the utmost knowledge of model releases will prevent any photographer from landing in trouble.
Table of Contents
When to Use a Model Release
Although taking photographs in public is by itself legal, there are some caveats that pop up when those photographs are published or transferred to the public. When images are made to appear as endorsements or advertisements by identifiable figures, a model release will be necessary.
Publishing of a Photo
When it comes to the publishing of content, this is legal responsibility attached; one can take a picture without any legal constraints unless there is intent to publish.
At events, when photographers take pictures of people and sell them without a model release, the risk is moved to the publisher; as a courtesy, photographers should inform buyers that they did not obtain a model release.
As an example, if a photographer were to capture an image of a celebrity at an event holding a recognizable brand of a beverage, there is no harm done. However, when that photographer publishes that image or sells it without informing the buyer of the absence of a model release, a legal infraction is present.
In cases in which a photo is published without a model release, and is then used for commercial means, like advertising or promotion of a service or product, the individual(s) being photographed are liable to press charges and win the case.
When publishing, it is always a strong idea to ensure that you are not breaking any privacy laws, and in terms of a model release, make sure the individuals in the photos are either unrecognizable or are not being used for commercial purposes.
Although many social media situations do not call for a model release, there are some grey areas that need to be cleared up. On the various social media platforms, the main rule to abide by is similar to the one mentioned earlier regarding advertising: if the picture(s) are being used for commercial purposes, a model release may be required.
There are, however, some deviations in which model releases are never needed on social media. A model release is likely not needed on social media if:
- The photo(s) are used in a news story
- The photo(s) are used as artistic expression (e.g. “Check out this photo.”)
- The identities or any identifiable features of the individuals shown are blurred out or unrecognizable
Always be sure to check with clients when possible before planting photos of them on social media; even if they are legal practices, some individuals feel uncomfortable with their likeness being visible to all.
Check with a Legal Figure
Although basic guidelines exist to dictate when model releases are compulsory, there is a fair bit of ambiguity, especially across state and national borders. Consulting a legal professional will remove any doubt or uncertainty when it comes to a model release, yielding a clear path and direction for your photographing needs.
For those interested in state laws regarding model release-related information and regulations, take a trip to this link (the continental laws are at the bottom of the page).
When looking to draft contracts or form important legal decisions, always be sure to get in contact with a trusted licensed attorney, and keep in mind that laws vary from place to place. If you do not have access to an attorney and are unsure if you are residing within the confines of the law, carry around related documentation or refrain from publishing without further advice.
When a Release is Not Needed
In the often uncertain world of model releases, there is a silver lining in the clouds. Thankfully, there are a handful of situations that are protected by law in nearly every capacity. It is worth noting that these legal statues apply only in the United States and are far from guaranteed elsewhere.
Artistic Expression/ Fine Art
At its most basic, explicit level, artistic photography, whether it be at an event or on the street, is safe from needing a model release. As long as it is not used for endorsement purposes, this form of art is actually protected by the First Amendment. Be wary, however; although something may be created with the intention of enjoying it as art, it can be contorted into illegal material.
When it comes to publishing, the same rules apply to art as any other form of photography: do not publish until you know for certain that the photo does not infringe on a recognizable individual’s personal privacy and that it does not advertise in any way, shape or form.
Fine Art Legality
A fascinating caveat shows up when the term “fine art” is thrown into the mix, with an exception for this subsector of art being regarded as editorial, as opposed to commercial advertising. In this area, the uncertainty increases, as the title of what qualifies as “fine art” is up for debate, and subjective.
As the bottom line for artistic photography with the purpose of creating fine art, publishing for reasons other than as art will almost certainly land one in hot water, and publishing commercially in itself without a model release is risky. The solution to this issue is, once again, consulting with a legal professional before publishing.
While the action of taking a public photo at an event or elsewhere is completely legal in itself, there are times where publishing, even as fine art content, is not legal.
Another subjective aspect of event photography and photography is news photography. While some regard news as regionally important information, others have more or less extreme personal definitions of the word. For this reason, it can be a bit confusing when figuring out whether or not your photographs qualify as news.
A great way to explain the outlining factors surrounding what counts as news photography, meaning it would not require a model release, is by providing a couple of examples:
- A celebrity is seen in public holding hands with another individual. This counts as news photography since tabloids and entertainment outlets often plant these types of stories in headlines and magazines. Although it is not terribly important to the majority, it is indeed news to some, and therefore can be published without a model release.
- A celebrity is seen eating at a local chain restaurant. A photographer sends a photo of this celebrity to the management of the restaurant, who then frame this photo as an advertising campaign.
- Or, the photographer sends this photo to a tabloid magazine, which posts the photo on the cover of a magazine. Both of these restaurant examples are models of illegal types of selling photography since they can be used as non-news endorsements of the restaurant and the magazine.
For public events, the notion of photography being news-oriented is a widely-accepted practice, meaning model releases are rarely required. So long as the photographs shot at an event are meant solely for news companies or stations, they can be sold legally. As always, confirm with a trusted attorney before publishing any material
Selling a Photo Without Publishing
As far as model releases are concerned, taking a photo without publishing it further is harmless; as long as it has no chance of being utilized as advertising, there is no reason to have any legal issues. In fact, even selling a public photo is harmless, although informing the buyer of the current lack of a release is crucial.
Due to the fact that public areas are public property in the United States, images of them can be taken; a common theme in this post is that it is not howem> something is photographed, but with what purpose.
As long as a photo is taken in a non-private area without intruding anybody, or without forcefully filming someone against their will, the law will protect the photographer.
A landmark case in 2007 (James Brown vs. Corbis) declared that the Right of Publicity Act applies to these situations, and established that placing a photo up for sale does not violate any constitutional law.
The problem is not in the taking of the photo, but the usage of the photo, and the intentions behind it. You do not need a model release for simply taking a photo, although, in order to publish, a deeper look is necessary.
How to Make a Good Model Release
Even before snapping a perfectly-lighted, serene photo, an ideal photographer should have a solid model release at-hand, waiting patiently for the right time to be called to action.
Especially for professionals in the fields of photography, having a safety net in case individuals photographed claim the rights of the content, or accuse you of photographing without consent, is invaluable.
Elements of a Great Model Release Form
These functional liability forms, dubbed under the more stylish brand of “model releases”, offer protection and stability when done right, although all forms are not created equally. While there are numerous forms on the internet that are solid and will likely lead to strong results, some circumstances call for more detailed scripts.
Your complete, adequate model release form will require:
- Your full name, as well as the name of your business or company
- The address of your business
- A release of all claims against your company or business
- A statement explaining your release claim permission for other companies that might want to buy or use your photos
- A list of possible claims covered by the model release (i.e. rights of publicity)
- Terms of compensation for the individual being photographed (if applicable)
- Indication whether the individual being photographed will be able to inspect the photo before it is published
- The name of the individual being photographed, and the boundaries of how/where their name can be used
- An expiration date, and what would happen following the expiration (if applicable)
- Proof that the individual signing understands and agrees to the terms described
- A statement that the client signing is at least 18 years of age. If the individual is a minor, proof of legal guardianship and acknowledgment of the prior terms is needed for the parents.
- Witness signatures
- Dates of the signing
Although this list is extensive, always be sure to discuss with a trusted legal professional to tie up any loose ends or add any special aspects of the form. The above list can also be used to double-check any forms found online, and to ensure that they are complete and relevant for any given photographer’s needs.
Consequences of Avoiding Model Releases
While it is far easier to use model releases and avoid the unlikely implications of photographing without consent, having the knowledge of what can potentially occur as a result can be valuable in judging whether or not to snap that last shot.
Financial and Mental Turmoil
At its most basic level, having presses charged upon yourself will almost undoubtedly land you in court, spending time and money. Even in cases in which you are in the right of the situation, the most valuable aspect of life is up for grabs, and out of your hands: time.
This message is best left simple and straightforward, and hopefully deters any nonsensical camera-wielding and reckless publishing. A few model releases should reside in the toolbox of every camera-person, as a backup when uncertainty sets in.
Expulsion from Private Events
In some private settings, taking photos without model release forms can result in being kicked out, and potentially having charges pressed. Again, this is another needless situation that can be avoided seamlessly. The underlying theme in this example is that model release forms should be consulted when in doubt.
Although a photographer would probably not be invited or accepted without proper authorization, there are always cracks in the wall; being prepared for the unexpected is eternally important and useful.
In the extreme case, reputations may be marred, and records altered in the process of photographing without model releases. In other words, refusal to utilize the services which model releases have to offer can lead to the closing of opportunities in the future.
Model Releases and Event Photography: Final Thoughts
As a baseline for all photography at events and beyond, stick to the handful of guidelines provided earlier and described here:
- The location of the photograph: On public property, model releases are rarely needed, as long as the way the model and photo are used is feasible and not related to endorsement or promotion.
- The identification (or lack thereof) of the model(s) in the photo: If distinguishing characteristics or facial identification of any sort are present in photos, gathering a model release for is the best option, although there are many exceptions, like public streets with loads of people.
- Selling vs. publishing: When selling photos of any sort, there is no need for a model release form; when publishing, however, there is a need for a model release for the majority of the time. When selling photos to buyers who plan on publishing, there is a strong chance they will ask for a model release.
- How the photo(s) will be used: The most important faction to consider when taking photos, the purpose, and how the content will be used, is a heavyweight in the legality decision.
- When used for educational or news-related purposes, a model release is not necessary unless the content invades property or defames an individual.
- When used for fine art, books not including the front cover, and art exhibits, the First Amendment majorly protects photographers from legal turmoil, as long as promotion or advertising is not involved.
- For promotion and advertising of a product or service, a model release form will almost certainly be needed.
On the Fence
Whenever in doubt, make it a habit to err on the side of caution and ask an individual to sign a model release form. Be cautious when explaining where the footage will be used, and be frank to avoid any future legal battles.
Whether it be at a private event or a public sidewalk, photographing in a well-mannered, legal fashion is the best solution to continue doing what you love, and avoid the burning of any bridges with potential clients.