Model releases: when and why you need them

Confused by model releases? Worry no more!

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You've a sizeable library of decent images and it occurs to you that uploading them to a stock agency so that they can make you a bit of pocket money wouldn't be a ridiculous thing to do. The photos are just sitting there; why shouldn't you put them to work for you? But when you embark on the process, you realise that you don't have model releases for lots of your photos that feature people, and you're not really sure how this will have an impact on your ability to sell these images. A bit confused, you park the venture and head out to take some photos and have some fun. 

After a bit of thinking you decide that getting into trouble because one of your images was used inappropriately would cost you more than you'd ever make from the sale of the image, and the model release headache really isn't worth that. But still, it's a shame that your photos are just sitting there, not paying for the odd meal out, case of wine, or holiday spending money.

Well, model releases aren't quite as complicated as they might sound, and with a little bit of guidance, there's no good reason why you can't put some images up for sale and earn yourself some spare cash. Even if you don't have a model release, it's still possible to sell image use rights. The key is determining how your images can and will be used.

The difference between commercial and editorial use

The crucial difference between images requiring a model release and images that don't is how they will be used. Any images intended for commercial use need a model release. Images that are reserved for editorial use don't require one. But what's the difference? Basically, it comes down to money.

If the image is going to be used in an advertising campaign or in some way is going to promote a product, endorse someone or something, or induce people to part with money, that is considered commercial.

When images are used to illustrate news articles, tutorials, educational materials, or for the purposes of critique and review, then they are regarded as editorial.

But are there exceptions?

There are indeed exceptions. It wouldn't be real life if everything were so straightforward. There are some circumstances where it doesn't matter if the intended use is commercial or editorial, a model release doesn't go far enough. This applies to issues that are regarded as sensitive. Do you remember the case of the married couple who were deeply upset when they saw their images being used to promote the 'No' vote in Ireland's same-sex marriage referendum? That's a perfect example. 

You also can't use photos of people on the covers of publications without permission, even if you could use the very same photo inside the very same publication without a release.

And if someone can't be readily identified in an image, then the chances are that a model release isn't required even for commercial purposes. Think of great sweeping crowd scenes, or a random pair of feet. It is recommended that you check with these ones first, though, just to be sure. As Alex Goldberg, VP of Sales, North America for Alamy reminds us: 'We have an old saying in the stock photo business, "If someone’s mother could recognise them in a photo, you better have a release."' 

Setting aside images of people for a moment, it's worth remembering that images containing works of art that remain in copyright can spring you problems. It's worth being extra cautious is these instances, even if the use is editorial.  

How about an easy-to-follow guide?

Guess what? The stock agency Alamy has produced a pretty flowchart that explains when and why you might or might not need a model (or indeed property) release. Handy!

Infographic: Property and model releases explained