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When do I Need a Model Release Form?

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Last revision: December 16th, 2020
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If you are a photographer or videographer who has used other people in your work, chances are you've heard of a Model Release Form.

If you are a new artist, you may know that you require specific documentation from the individuals you use in your work, but aren't sure exactly what that documentation is supposed to be.

The truth is, getting the correct permission from your models can be the difference between a thriving career and one that falls flat before it gets going. Although many artists are creative thinkers, who love to think just about their art, certain legal protections are required to ensure that you can keep doing what you love for years to come.

In this guide, we will discuss everything about Model Release Forms, such as what they are, when you need them, and what they should contain. By the time you've finished reading, you'll be in great shape to start protecting yourself and your art legally, and you'll set yourself up for a successful future.

Please keep in mind that nothing in this guide constitutes legal advice, and it should instead be taken as informational only.

What is a "model"?

Although when you hear the term model, you may think of professional working models that walk the runway and get photographed for magazines, the term "model" for a Model Release Form is much more general. A model is anybody whose photograph (or video recording) you use for an advertisement or commercial purpose. The model does not have to be a professional. They can be just someone whose photograph you decided to take. They can be a friend, or family member, or someone you just met.

Basically, for the purposes of a Model Release Form, the model is just the individual in the photograph or video.

Additionally, you don't need to be a professional photographer to need a Model Release Form. You could just be desiring to use the photos in a commercial way. For a photo job, it's possible for anyone to use a document like a Photography Services Contract to get hired to do some photo work. Usually, with a Photography Services Contract, you will be hired to do a specific shoot, but if you wanted to use some of the photos for commercial work after, you may be able to ask your subjects to sign a Model Release Form.

What is a Model Release Form?

If a model is just someone whose photo or video you are using for advertising or commercial purposes, then a Model Release Form is the document through which can legally do that.

The whole purpose of a Model Release Form is simply to allow the photographer or videographer to use the model's image in the way that they choose. Model Release Forms are used mainly for advertising or commercial businesses. Still, some photographers choose to use them even for other types of work just to be safe, discussed further below.

The timing of the execution of a Model Release Form can be either before or after the photos and videos are taken. In some cases, it makes sense to get the document signed before, if it is a specific photoshoot, for example. In other cases, you may be out taking photos in public and choose to ask about the release after you've already photographed the subject. In every case, however, the document should be signed well before the photos or videos are ever used for a commercial purpose.

How do I know when I need a Model Release Form?

There are three criteria you can use to assess when a Model Release Form is necessary.

1. Is the model recognizable?

If the model in your photograph or video is recognizable, you'll need a Model Release Form. You may think it is easy to tell if someone is identifiable or not, but the answer is not as clear as that.

Just because a model's face isn't visible doesn't mean that they aren't recognizable. They may be identifiable by their silhouette, clothes, or even tattoos or other marks. Even where the model is located in the photo or video can make them recognizable.

In other words, there are several factors that you may not be considering that would make a model in your image recognizable. If you think that someone is not recognizable and then you use their image in a commercial way, you could be at risk of getting sued. This is why it's always a good idea to err on the side of caution when deciding whether a Model Release Form is needed.

More significantly, you may wish to speak to an attorney about when you need a Model Release Form.

Final takeaway: If the model is recognizable, you need them to sign a release.

2. Is the person's image going to be used for an advertisement?

If the person's image is going to be used for advertising, then you will always need a Model Release Form. It doesn't matter if the advertising is small or large. For example, whether you use the image for an internet-based advertisement that can be seen in 30 countries, or just for a print ad in your local town newspaper, you still need a Model Release Form.

The rationale for this is that money will be made based on the image. Therefore, you need the model to be aware of its use and make sure that you are legally able to use their image.

Final takeaway: Any advertisement warrants a Model Release Form.

3. Is the person's image going to be used for a general commercial purpose?

If the person's image is not going to be used directly for an advertisement but may be used for another commercial purpose, you should still get a Model Release Form. For example, if a company decides to use it for products they might be giving away, you must get a signed release. Or, if the image could be used on a business website, a release form is needed.

Final takeaway: Any time the image will be used for a commercial purpose, a Model Release Form is needed.

Are there other circumstances in which I could use a Model Release Form?

Although the above are circumstances where a Model Release Form is necessary, some photographers choose to use Model Release Forms in other situations as well. For example, if you are using someone's image for a magazine, you may not technically need a Model Release Form. However, many photographers and videographers still tend to have signed release forms to protect themselves legally as much as possible.

Some photographers even get signed release forms to use people's images in their own portfolios or otherwise in their own work. Again, while in this circumstance a Model Release Form might not be strictly necessary, some artists do it for peace of mind.

Are there certain situations in which I might not need a Model Release Form?

There are certain rules about intellectual property that make clear you do not need a Model Release Form in all circumstances, as described above. For example, if you are taking photos of people in a public place, and those photos will never be used for commercial purposes, you won't need a Model Release Form. You also generally don't need a Model Release Form for editorial photos.

However, if you plan to take photos of people just for a newspaper or your own portfolio, but then you end up wanting to use them for a commercial purpose, you will not be able to unless you've already obtained a signed form. In other words, if there is any chance that one day, you may wish to use those photos commercially, it's always a better idea to obtain an executed Model Release Form.

Why it's essential to have a Model Release Form

It's critical to have a Model Release Form so that you are absolutely legally-protected for anything you would want to do with images. There are stories in which large companies used someone's image without properly obtaining a Model Release Form, and then they were sued. Often, the model in these situations is suing to recover a certain amount of money made by the company for using their image. Courts don't look kindly on people or companies illegally profiting off another, and if you fail to get a Model Release Form, you may be doing just that.

Getting a Model Release Form will ensure that you stay safe, no matter how you plan to use the images.

What should a Model Release Form Contain?

A good Model Release Form can be short and to-the-point. It should contain a few necessary clauses, but other than that, it does not have to be a large contract.

The most important part of the Model Release Form will be the release of rights. This section can be long or short, depending on what the artist prefers. The release of rights is where the model consents to allow the artist to use the model's image for whatever they may want in the future. In other words, the model is releasing their rights to the image. If necessary, the model can also include certain restrictions (such as, for example, their legal name must not be used).

The principal clauses the form must contain are as follows:

  • Name and identification of both the model and photographer
  • If the model is under 18, consent of the model's parent or guardian
  • The type of work, such as photo, video, or both
  • Release of rights
  • Signature space for each of the parties and the parent or guardian, if needed

Final Takeaway

A Model Release Form does not have to be a complicated document, but it is an absolutely necessary document for photographers and videographers who wish to use images of people in their commercial work. As always, it is better to be safe than sorry, so if you aren't sure whether you will want to use a work commercially in the future, better to err on the side of caution and get it signed. If you don't, then your ability to use photographs or videos of that particular model will be lost forever.

If you have any specific questions about your Model Release Form or your use of images of other people, contact an attorney licensed in your state for assistance.


About the Author: Anjali Nowakowski is a Legal Templates Programmer at Wonder.Legal and is based in the U.S.A.

Template to download in Word and PDF format

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