Q:Do I need a model release?
A: Before answering, be aware that I am not an attorney, and this answer should not be considered legal advice. Also be aware that the law varies from one jurisdiction to another, and from one country to another. Please contact a local attorney if you have specific questions about model releases in your area.
Having said that, here are some general guidelines on where model releases are necessary in the US.
First, a photographer does not need a model release to take a photo. The need for a model release is based on what the photo will be used for. So a photo of Tom Cruise, for example, might need a model release in one instance, but not another.
Generally, a model release is only necessary if a person in the photo is recognizable. So if the person is a dark silhouette against a light background, or if their back is turned, or their face is covered by their hand or a hat or scarf, or if they are a tiny unrecognizable dot in a crowd, etc., then a model release is not necessary. There are exceptions to this. Like if their profile is easily recognized even in silhouette, or if they have a recognizable tattoo on their hand, or something like that.
Generally, a model release is necessary for “commercial” use, and not necessary for “editorial” use. Using Tom Cruise as an example again: if you wanted to use a photo of Tom Cruise in an advertisement for cologne, then you would definitely need a model release. If you wanted to use that very same photo for a newspaper article about famous actors, you would not need a model release. Again, there are exceptions to this, and there are grey areas -- it is sometimes not clear what is commercial use and what is editorial use. You would not need a model release to hang a photo of Tom Cruise in your kitchen (personal use). If you hang that same photo in your office at work, however, that could be interpreted as Tom Cruise endorsing your company’s product or service, in which case it might require a model release. But if your office is a cubby-hole, never seen by customers or the general public, then probably not. See, it can get confusing?
A model release has nothing to do with the photographer making any money (or not). For example, a photographer might donate a photo to his brother’s company to use in an advertisement. This is still commercial use, even though the photographer was not paid. Conversely, most newspaper photographers are paid, but editorial photos in the newspaper are still not commercial use.
Generally, model releases apply to people. However, photos of recognizable buildings, artwork, or other objects might require a property release (like a model release, only for a building or object, not a person). A photo of the Seattle Space Needle, for example, would normally require a property release if used for commercial purposes (however, the owners have given blanket permission to use photos of the Space Needle, so you don’t have to worry about it). You would not normally need a property release if it is just one building in a skyline photo.
I have model releases on file for many of the images on this site. If you need to use an image for commercial use, and require a model release, please ask.
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