When Do You Need a Model Release?

The recent case of Virgin Mobile using a Flickr photo in an ad campaign without the model’s permission has once again raised the issue of model releases. When are they necessary, and when are they not required?

The rule of thumb is that editorial usage does not require a model release; however, advertising, promotion, and endorsement usage always requires a model release. Most amateurs are not familiar with their First Amendment rights and the fact that model releases are not required for editorial use — so when a case like Virgin Mobile comes up, early-career photographers tend to panic.

To add to the confusion, some photo editors state that they require a model release when by law they don’t need one. They often do this simply to weed out amateur photographers. Pro stock photographers know what’s what concerning editorial usage. They ignore the reference to model releases and submit their photos, with or without model releases.

You’ll find that photo editors at editorial markets will welcome any non-released photo that matches their current need (when they are going to use it for editorial purposes). Publishers fiercely protect their First Amendment rights. A policy of actually requiring model releases for publication could reduce the flow of quality photos coming into their publishing houses, which would greatly reduce their output, and might even put them out of business.

Since photo editors at most publishing houses hardly ever deal with advertising or other endorsement-type assignments, it’s rare that they ever need a model release. When they do need a release, it’s usually because they are working on a project of a particularly sensitive nature, such as drug abuse, mental retardation, sex education, etc. In those cases, it would be appropriate to ask for a model or property release.

We deal with dozens of photo editors daily here at PhotoSource International, from small regional magazines to national book publishers. Rarely do they ever ask for a model release. If one does, it throws up a red flag to us as an indication that the photo editor is new to the field of publishing and might not know, not only their rights, but your rights as well. We avoid publishing photo requests from such an editor.

I’ve met competent photographers who were unaware of their rights regarding model releases and other legal issues, and consequently took years before they got squared away and took the step to properly market their photography.

4 Responses to “When Do You Need a Model Release?”

  1. I have recently been asked to produce a models release for an art exhibition at the local University. The work being displayed was shot during a theater play and is documentary. Do I need model releases, for this work? There will be no sales.

  2. My neighbor asked me to take pictures of her niece's wedding shower (free). A few friends on my facebook want me to post them there so they can see what they look like. The wedding shower was in a hall, so it was not a public place. I am not selling the photos, just showing them to others so they can see how good my work is. Do I need a model release form? I've researched the answer online but it seems every place says something diffferent. I'm not selling the photos and am not using them as a logo to advertise my name in photography, only showing others what type of work I do.

  3. So, if Im not advertising or endorsing, but simply selling a fine art print where somebody's face is in the frame there are no worries?

  1. [...] No! Model release forms are only required if that model is going to be advertising, endorsing or promoting something. Heck, you can sell images (as art) that have people photographed in a public place and not have to worry about it. This is one of the most common questions I hear about publishing or selling photos. Even photos used for editorial purposes do not need model release forms, as noted by the excellent photographer blog Black Star. [...]

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