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The importance of a model release

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Posted by Marianne Winther on October 1, 2013

If you use photography of any description in a commercial context and there's an identifiable person in the image, then you have to make sure that the photo has a relevant model release. Period. 

Chances are that's the case if you licence an image from a reputable stock agency but as not all agencies work in the same way and some offer non-released images for usage, it's by no means a given and you should always make sure.

So, what exactly is a model release? It's a legal document that gives the photographer permission to licence an image commercially and whilst photographers are encouraged to always secure them, it can be a grey area as to when one is required, so it's ultimately up to the image buyer to make sure they've dotted the i's and crossed the t's when it comes to licensing stock.

Many Art Buyers are under the impression that they only need a model release in place if it's a straightforward portrait, where  the model is  obviously visible, but that's not the case. A model release is actually required whenever someone can be recognised and that could be because of a distinctive profile in silhouette, some custom clothing, a body part, a scar or even a tattoo. 

To help illustrate this, we've picked out some examples:


Model release required

Even though these hands do seem "generic", they are hands that could be those of a hand model and if that model could prove they were her hands there would be a risk of legal action if no release was obtained


PCI12771  ©Food-image




Model release required

The tattoo is very distinctive as is the body scar



IOF13778  ©Iofoto




Model release required

Even though the silhouette is blurry and very generic with a non-identifiable background, it is clearly "staged", so a release would be required



BOA17835  ©Moodboard




Model release required

Although there is no one person that stands out, the crowd is too small to be acceptable for consideration as "not requiring a release". If one of the people made a claim, they may well win



PAL12457  ©PhotoAlto




In addition, it's also important to remember that many stock agencies have clauses in their licence agreements which prohibit the use of images for sensitive issues even if there is a model release in place. So, if you're going to be using a photo for something controversial and you don't want to end up in hot water, it's always best to speak to the agency and get clearance. Not having a proper release in place and using an image for an obviously sensitive issue can be a costly affair. 

Getty Images are, as it happens, currently in the news for licensing an image of Avril Nolan, a Brooklyn based woman, who found her image splashed across city newspapers as a poster child for the rights of HIV positive people. Not only is she not HIV positive but she claims she never signed a model release and she's filed a $450,000 lawsuit against Getty Images. Details are still a little sketchy about this particular case and it seems that the photographer may not really have understood what was required as per the terms of the Getty contract but irrespective, the image buyer should have been a little more cautious in using stock photography for such a sensitive issue wihtout first checking with the agency - and the correct way to use the image in such a context would also be to have stated that it was a model.

Note: The information provided in this article in no way constitutes legal advice.

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by Steve S. on October 27, 2015 16:05:04

How can image providers like you, in good faith, offer an image for sale and not provide contact information for the model? How am I supposed to track down a random pair of hands for a release?

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