Model and property releases give you permission to take someone’s photograph and use it for commercial purposes. If you’re taking photos for a newspaper or magazine, meaning they are for editorial use, then a release is not required. Advertising use, however, where a commercial product or service is being promoted, does constitute commercial use and requires a release — even though it may be appearing in a newspaper or other publication that contains editorial content. Individuals are legally entitled to privacy, which means, also, that you can’t take someone’s photo and use it commercially.
This doesn’t mean that the images you’re taking are only of models posing for you; if you’re going to use a photo for anything other than editorial purposes — essentially meaning you’re promoting something with it (such as your business) — then getting a model release is a good idea. If the person is not recognizable in the photo, then a release is not required (just because they can recognize themselves doesn’t count).
The same applies to photos of property that belongs to others, again if the photo is for non-editorial use. Property isn’t just a building; it can be someone’s car, home, or even their dog or horse. Public properties don’t need releases, unless there’s a security issue. (I wouldn’t suggest going out of your way to take snapshots of the Pentagon without permission, for example, unless you’re on a public tour and cameras are allowed.)
If you are an official photographer for an event, then, typically, even by merely purchasing a ticket or attending, individuals are consenting to have their images used for publicity purposes, so a model release is not required; likewise, athletes have agreed that their images may be used in specific ways by official photographers. However, if you do not have an official designation — say, for example, if you attend a baseball game and take some photos — then this release does not apply. Technically, even though the event is open to the public, it’s still a private event and you’ve agreed to their terms by purchasing a ticket (this is usually stated in one way or another in the fine print on the ticket). While you can take a photo, you can’t sell or distribute it.
Incidentally, editorial use is subject to some discussion, as well. Most newspapers, for example, will gladly sell the photos that they have taken, and in some cases published, to individuals or businesses. They frequently offer the images for sale in online galleries, or from a photo library. So, editorial use doesn’t necessarily mean solely that the images taken are only being sold as an integrated part of media content.
Furthermore, while the Web is a form of media and publishing, if you are putting images onto a Web site that exists only for commercial purposes — such as a specific site for a business — then use of a photo is not valid editorial use. A business that publishes qualified news stories or photos about events, however, is different — even if the business also has other commercial interests.
Normally you need to use a different model release for a minor than for an adult; at the very least, if you photograph a child, then you need to have their parent or guardian sign an adult release, and you need to handwrite and initial a note about the child. Conversely, if your image contains any adult material (for example, nudity), then you need to have a release that’s even more specific and that includes documentation proving that the subject is 18 years old or older.
Pocket model releases are shortened versions of full (often multipaged) model releases that you can quickly use in the field. While they don’t necessarily cover every possible legal contingency, they at least give you proof that you were allowed to take and use the photo.
You can find many samples of model releases online. If you’re a member of the PPA, you can download them for free (including one for minors) from their Web site. The Popular Photography Web site (www.popphoto.com) also provides a nice selection of free releases, including pocket, adult, simplified adult, and minor versions.
Generally speaking, if you think you might need a model or property release, it’s always better to get one.
A model or property release will help protect you in the event of a lawsuit. However, it’s not a guarantee that one will not take place and that a claim cannot be made against you. The PPA offers very good legal counsel and support for its members in the event of a problem.