Many photographers starting out often ask working photographers if it is really necessary to get a model release – permission, from a person depicted in a photo or portrait, to use that photo for commercial or other purposes. Between the difficulties of actually getting a release, the vague or confusing legalities (editorial use vs. commercial use, etc), or the time and hassle involved, a photographer may not bother. Additionally, a travel photographer would need releases in various local languages and would need to be able to explain to the model exactly what they are signing, so they might not make the effort.
But if you ever plan to license a photo for commercial use – say for use in a book or in an advertisement – you really will need a release.
Recently a book publisher requested to license one of my images for use in a book. Although the use of the image in the book might be considered editorial, the editor requested a signed model release. The photo was taken in a foreign country, over two years ago during a public celebration, and was not at all a situation where I could have approached the subject and asked for permission. However, with the incentive of a several hundred dollar licensing fee, I set out to get it.
Since the person in the photo was the central figure in the event, I figured I had a chance to track them down. So one month ago, I contacted the foreign authority who organized the event, through their website. I also contacted several friends and acquaintances who live in the city where the photo was taken and asked if they could go to the organization’s office and inquire about how to contact the person in the photo. However, my acquaintances either didn’t respond or were out of town and unable to help. Finally, a week or so later one of them provided me with the email address of the head of the organization, along with a warning that they would not be cooperative and that as soon as they smelled money, they would want it for themselves. So I contacted the organizers, and sure enough, they were not cooperative and failed to provide me with a name or contact info. After doggedly pursuing them, a couple weeks into the process they finally told me that they were inquiring about the legalities of who is authorized to give permission for use of the photo. Since they organized the event, they implied it was likely them who should sign the model release. (They may have also been expecting me to start discussing monetary incentives for them to continue to help me.) I no longer had the patience to tell them that is not how a model release works, and decided to pursue different routes.
I expanded my inquiries, and another friend from the city said not only did she know the name of the person, but that it was a friend of hers! “Great!” I said, “can you get me in touch with them?” A week or so later (people in other countries don’t always view email as an immediate back and forth as we typically do…) my friend told me, “well, he isn’t exactly a friend,” but rather my friend had once been introduced to the person four years ago. However, in the meantime, now armed with the name, I did some bi-lingual Internet searches, and found some indirect connections to the person. I wrote to one, and he immediately provided me with the model’s email address. But the subject has yet to respond, so the process continues.
This situation is obviously an exception in that a model release would not have been possible in the original photo situation. But it is also an exception that it is somewhat possible to identify and track down the subject, a couple years later and in another country. How often would you be able to do that with a complete stranger, even in your own city, much less in a foreign country? If you capture a photo that you think may have the possibility of being licensed, you can see it may be worth it to go through the initial effort to get a signed release. A two minute process at the time vs. a one month (and counting) process later!
Model releases in numerous languages can be downloaded from Getty Images here: