Why should I get a model release form signed?

Sep 23, 2012

Topic: Contracts, Releases
Time Investment: 7 Minutes
Suggested Product: Model Release Forms


There’s so much to think about legally when running a photography business.  Getting legit, forms needed, copyright vs model release.  Right of privacy is a big legal issue and should be adhered to and understood as much as possible by business owners, especially photographers.

Understand a model release form, educate yourself and your client.  You’ll be better off for it!


What is a model release form?

A model release signed by subject (or in the case of a minor, the parent or legal guardian) gives the photographer permission to publish the photograph as defined by the release.  Releases typically include use for portfolio, studio samples and other commercial uses.  This also releases any claims the model may have to future compensation for use of images.


How is this different than a copyright or print release?

Copyright and Print releases have to do with use by photographer and client.  Copyright releases transfer ownership of photographs from photographer to client.  Print releases provide clients the permission to print digital files within the restrictions listed within the release while the photographer retains ownership (copyright).


Model release basics

  • It includes stipulations and restrictions including the session from which the images come from, limits on those images are to be used in the course of business and the payments for this use.
  • You don’t have to require that a model release be signed in order to do the session.  This is particularly true in areas of the country where high-level politicians, movie stars, and federal agent/employees are not able or will not allow you to use.
  • The model release can be included in the contract or a separate document. For help in deciding whether to keep it separate or not, see Should my photography contract and model release be separate documents?
  • It can be amended to be as restrictive or lenient as the parties in the contractual relationship see fit.
  • Client’s release of claims against photographer for use of photograph.


The law behind privacy and model releases

The main question to ask when determining if you need a model release is “what is the intended use of the images?”  Use of the images may infringe upon privacy protection laws for a client when images were taken in a private photographer/client relationship.  There are a variety of laws that provide protection privacy to the client – on federal and state levels.

The Lanham Act is federal law and applies throughout the United States. Section 43(a) provides:

(1) Any person who, on or in connection with any goods or services, or any container for goods, uses in commerce any word, term, name, symbol, or device, or any combination thereof, or any false designation of origin, false or misleading description of fact, or false or misleading representation of fact, which-

(A) is likely to cause confusion, or to cause mistake, or to deceive as to the affiliation, connection, or association of such person with another person, or as to the origin, sponsorship, or approval of his or her goods, services, or commercial activities by another person, or
(B) in commercial advertising or promotion, misrepresents the nature, characteristics, qualities, or geographic origin of his or her or another person's goods, services, or commercial activities,
shall be liable in a civil action by any person who believes that he or she is or is likely to be damaged by such act.

On a state level, each individual state has their own breakdown of privacy laws. Refer to your local state laws for reference. Reporters Committee For Freedom Of the Press has a state guide listing here.

When should I get a model release?

Whenever you have a photo session that is a private contractual relationship and the intention is to use the pictures on website, portfolio, studio samples or any other marketing avenues.  When in doubt, get one in writing.  Even between friends and family. ESPECIALLY between friends and family.

You CAN shoot without a model release – lack of model release doesn’t bar you from executing the relationship; only from use of the images for commercial purposes.

When do I not need a model release form?

In general, when shooting a public area (landscape, subjects walk into frame, etc.) a model release is not needed.  However, states vary on their privacy laws so always double check for your state.

See also: What if my client doesn’t want to sign a model release?


What if I don’t get a model release signed?

Unless it is otherwise written in the contract in similar language, you are unable to use the photographs for marketing or portfolio use until you obtain the model release.  It is always best practice to get it beforehand.  If you have a client insisting on not signing it, balance the potential word of mouth and customer flow against whether it is worth turning away a session due to the inability to use photographs publicly.


Model release resources

  • General Model Release – Applicable for any session you shoot
  • Minor Model Release – Specific for use when photographing minors. Can be included in the general model release.  Is signed by the parent or legal guardian of the minor.
  • Restricted Model Release – Restricts the terms for photographer’s use of the photographs


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