One question I get frequently is, “When do I need a model release?” First, This is not intended to be legal advice, that’s what your lawyer gets paid to dispense. This is my understanding of when you need a release.
Also understand that the answer will sometimes vary depending on who you’re asking. If you’re asking a stock photo agency that you want to list your images, then the answer is what they tell you. Every company is different and some require that you use their forms. Be sure and understand the agency-specific requirements before you start shooting for stock photography.
You Do Not Need a Release To Take Someones Picture
A common myth in some circles is that you need a release to take a picture of someone you don’t know. You do not need a release or even permission to photograph someone, provided that person is in a public place and not anywhere they might have a reasonable expectation of privacy (i.e. the bathroom, a changing room, etc.).
You Do Not Need a Release For Artistic or Journalistic Expression
You generally do not need a release to use your own photos in a gallery display or other artistic expression, even though those activities might also involve you selling your pictures.
In addition, you can still sell those photos to newspapers, magazines, trade journals, and educational publications. Few of the newspaper photographers I know ever bother with releases, unless they think the shot might be used for something other than news reporting.
If this were not the case, paparazzi and sports photographers would be out of business overnight. This is also referred to as “editorial use” in some circles.
You Positively Will Need a Release For Any Type of Commercial Use
Any image of identifiable subjects that might imply commercial use or endorsement, such as commercial web sites, brochures, print advertisements, billboards and magazine ads (different than images used in a story), will require a model release.
This is how the whole concept of celebrity endorsement works. You can take a picture of Lindsay Lohan ducking into a nightclub and sell it to the tabloids, but the club owner cannot use the image in an ad that implies endorsement without Ms. Lohan’s signature on a release.
Since stock photo agencies are in business specifically to sell images for web sites, brochures, billboards and other commercial uses, you will need a signed model release for any photo containing identifiable people.
Minors cannot legally enter into a valid contract, period. Anyone under 18 will need a release signed by their parent or guardian.
Property releases apply to pets and identifiable property and buildings. In most cases, you will need a signed property release to sell images of a particular building or animals.
Public buildings and landmarks are exempt, though you can get into trouble photographing government buildings these days due to security concerns. There are also some exemptions for skylines, where a particular building is part of the landscape. Those exceptions are not always clear.
Some Gray Areas
Even though the rules are fairly simple, there are some gray areas that I’ll mention in passing.
Political Endorsements – This is one of those areas that can go either way, depending on the circumstances. Just to be on the safe side, I try to get a release for anything that might imply endorsement of a particular candidate or position.
Events – Most venues have language on the ticket stubs that if you’re there, you consent to be photographed for the purposes of endorsement. This is kind of a gray area, so it’s one of those times you actually might need to talk to your lawyer.
No matter how careful you are, you can still get sued. You’re going to be better protected in cases when you have a signed model release.
Needless to say, save those releases forever.
Book Reference: A Digital Photographers Guide To Model Releases by Dan Heller
Video: Ignore the hammy dialog until the lawyer talks.
Model Releases Sample