DPP Solutions: Model Release Basics

A model release is simply a liability waiver from the subject of a photograph that allows the said imagery to be published. Model releases can be complicated, but they don’t have to be. Even a handwritten note with signatures, if properly documented, is all that you’ll need to cover your bases. If snapping a picture of an interesting subject in public, for example, you can quickly fill out a contract on the spot, ask the model to sign it, and then take a picture of the model with the signed release form. With that, you’ve fulfilled the basic tenets of a liability waiver, but, of course, with photography and the myriad usages of a digital image, there’s still a lot of gray zone when it comes to compensation, licensing and usage rights, as well as many other factors like digital image manipulation, so much more complex forms also exist.

Whoever chooses to publish an image is actually responsible for any incurred civil liabilities. While that technically takes the legal obligation from the hands of the photographer, the majority of publishers expect that the photographer has already covered any of the legalities when it comes to models and rights clearance, and there are a number of cases where the photographer has been included in a lawsuit by the publisher or the model. Even so, in this litigious environment, publishers will choose not to run an image if there’s any doubt. For photographers interested in second-hand stock sales of their portraiture and editorial work, for example, the big stock agencies make it as easy as possible for their stables of photographers by offering prepared model releases with submission requirements for download. Most of them won’t accept an image with a recognizable face at all without a model release.

Stockphoto’s standard model release.

If choosing to create your own model release form (which is useful if working with several stock agencies) or an abridged "pocket release" that you can carry around, keep the contract as short and simple to understand as possible. The basic requirements are that you, as the photographer, are receiving publishing rights from the subject, your model, in exchange for compensation or waived compensation. A generic release will include full names, signatures, contact information and addresses for both parties, as well as the date. The body of the contract should mention that the model gives publication rights to the photographer or his or her business and anyone authorized by the photographer for publication or usage.

If working with an underage model, the release, usually written in identical language otherwise, must be signed by the guardian or parent rather than the model. Legally, recognizable properties and personal items require a release, too, and, of course, trademarks such as logos and designs should never be infringed, even in backgrounds. If shooting more sensitive material that may involve sexual situations, religious iconography, health concerns, political usage and digital manipulations, a more extensive contract is often required because the model can claim that he or she wasn’t fully made aware of the planned usage of the imagery during the shoot. In cases or situations where you’re uncertain, it’s best to include very specific usage language that shows that both you and the model were of the same mind-set while producing the images. If you find a model growing uncomfortable over the course of a shoot, you can also add handwritten notes to a contract that dictate usage and any other concerns as long as they’re notated by the model.

After all, the point of these contracts is not to add more concerns to the workflow of a shoot, but to ensure that everything goes smoothly so there are no legal difficulties afterward.


There are several resources for downloading model releases online:
The ASMP also offers its own free ASMP Releases app for carrying several customizable forms on iPhones and iPads at itunes.apple.com/us/app/asmp-releases/id540270175?mt=8
National Press Photographers Association

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