Dan Heller on Model Releases

One writer about the business of photography I’ve mentioned previously is Dan Heller, and I’m pleased to hear about his new book, A Digital Photographer’s Guide to Model Releases coming out shortly. (And no, there is nothing that applies specifically to digital photographs in the book – just that we are all digital photographers now – or at least that’s where the publishers see the market.)
I only have one problem with Heller (style apart), which is that like many Americans he writes almost entirely with the USA in mind. But if you are an American photographer I think this is a book that should probably be on your shopping list.

I wouldn’t mention the book except for the fact that Heller provides a very generous guide on-line guide to model releases, and for most of us outside the US this will suffice. It’s a subject I’ve written about myself, but certainly not at such length and depth, although having read his piece there is nothing significant I’d want to change in my previous efforts.

Perhaps the best piece of advice in the whole piece is his “rule of thumb“, borrowed from the American military, “shoot first and ask questions later.” Although he discusses the issues from a legal point of view, his pragmatism is a strong point. You don’t need a release to take pictures, but only for fairly specific areas of usage.

Heller does look at many of the legal traps with sensible warnings about the many legal grey areas. He also appropriately mentions related problems of copyright and trademarks – with links to his feature on them.

Almost all photographers will find much to reassure them in this feature; for example he makes clear that in general exhibitions of your work, including images on a web site, even if for sale, do not require model releases, and you can always sell prints of people without a release (though with the famous there may be copyright or trademark issues.)

Heller rightly says that model releases (and the same is true of property releases) will make your pictures of people much more saleable – even for usages where a release is unnecessary. But although as he makes clear it is the responsibility of the publisher to ascertain whether a release is needed, this is something that some publishers are now attempting to push onto photographers.

Read the small print of any contract carefully and if you find any clauses that state that you indemnify the publisher against the costs of legal action arising from the use of your work, take legal advice or cross them through before signing, adding the words “as amended” with your signature. You may of course lose work this way, and at times it is impossible to avoid some liability – but as the practical risks are so low it may even be covered by your insurance. A greater risk in the small print is of course the increasing tendency to “rights grab” by publishers, and there is also advice on this on the pages at the NUJ Freelance Fees Guide. Unfortunately much stock is now handled through site on-line submission forms which preclude the use of the NUJ Delivery Notes (available to members) which include their standard photographers’ terms and conditions.

Heller does have a very interesting discussion of a problem of this nature, related to a picture of a trademarked building, the Hearst Castle, in his page on copyrights and trademarks. Again its a page well worth reading, full of good advice and pragmatism. You’ll be reassured to find, for example that you very seldom need worry about photographing logos and that you need almost never bother about building releases.

Of course there is still a gap between the actual situation and the demands of many stock agencies, particularly on-line agencies, and also commercial clients. So, if it is easy, cheap and possible to get a model release (or a property release) it makes business sense to do so, although I’ve only bothered once in the last year.

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