Model Release and Regret

“Subway Ballet” by J Stimp from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Recently, I received an email from a photographer (not my client) who had a question about the validity of model releases. As I understood the situation, he hired a model (over age 18) to do a photoshoot at his studio. The model was photographed nude for at least part of the shoot. The model signed a model release and was paid for her modeling services.

After the photoshoot, the photographer censored some of the images to comply with Facebook’s rules and posted them online.  The model saw the images and was upset. The photographer asked me if the model had any authority to force him to take the images down.

The Rules of Model Releases
Model releases are standard in the photography world. In most cases, the photographer owns the copyright in their work from the moment the photo is created, not the person in the photo, and the model owns the right to publicize their own image.

The model release transfers the model’s right to publicity in those images to the photographer, which allows the photographer to use the images per the terms of the release. Usually, when I write a model release or a model release template, the model gives the photographer permission to use the images in any way and for any purpose, without restriction.

In general, once the model release is signed, the model’s given up their rights. If the model later regrets signing it, there may be nothing they can do to “unring that bell” unless the photographer is willing to negotiate another agreement – such as a copyright assignment where the model purchases the copyright rights in the images from the photographer.

Think Before You Sign
If you are a model, read the model release carefully. Never sign the release without reading and understanding it. Many of them allow for unfettered use by the photographer, including the right to license the images to others. Treat the images as if they are going to end up all over the internet, on billboards, on products or marketing campaigns you hate. Chances are, that’s not going to happen, but it could.

I write not just as a lawyer, but also a model myself. On a number of occasions, I have written and signed my own model release. Models may give up substantial rights when signing these documents, so it’s not a decision to make lightly.

What Could Invalidate a Model Release
Even if the model release was written by a lawyer and appears to valid on its face, there are situations where a model release might be invalid due to the circumstances surrounding the shoot:

  • The model was minor (Depending on your state, minors may not be able to sign contracts or they can withdraw their consent upon reaching the age of majority.)
  • The model was an adult but lacked the capacity to enter into a legally binding contract. (These people usually have an appointed guardian to sign for them.)
  • The model was intoxicated. (In general, intoxicated people can’t enter into valid contracts.)
  • The model was forced to sign the contract under duress. (You can’t get a valid contract if you use threats or force to get someone to sign it.)

There can also be instances where the photo in question was taken outside the scope of the model release and so the model release does not apply.

I get questions every day about photography, image rights, and copyright. If you are a photographer or model (or aspiring to be one), it’s imperative that you understand these issues. Many disputes can be avoided with well-written contracts and accurate information. I’m constantly doing work in this area, so if you want to keep up with what I’m doing or if you need help, you can contact me directly or check out the other posts and videos I’ve done on the legal side of photography. You can also get access to more exclusive content that is available only to people on my mailing list, by subscribing here.

When’s the Last Time You Reviewed Your Contract Templates?

Inspiration as Commodity by exquisitur from Flickr

Inspiration as Commodity by exquisitur from Flickr

I had the pleasure of speaking to the Photographer’s Adventure Club last week. In addition to discussion the basics of copyright and how to protect their rights in their work, we talked a lot about the importance of contracts.

I know the subject of contracts makes a lot of people’s eyes glaze over – it’s that fine-print-legalese-crap-that-no-one-reads-anyway stuff. A lot of people think contracts are boring and a lot of contracts are . . . but they don’t have to be.

I love contracts. They create the basis of so many relationships – whether they are written, oral, or pieced together through a series of emails. Too often people come to me with a question about a problem in one of their professional relationships and when I ask, “What does your contract say about this?” the answer is “I don’t know” or “We don’t have a contract.” We can still resovle the problem but we could have avoided a lot of headaches and frustration by putting everything on paper in advance so everyone’s on the same page from the beginning.

Having contract templates is often the best way to create the relationship with others that you want. In regards to photographers they should have a file of contract templates for clients who hire them, for other photographers when they have to hire an additional person to work a shoot, a copyright license for publications, a model release, and a location release. And contracts don’t have to be long, complicated, or riddled with crazy legalese to be effective. I prefer to write contracts in straight-forward English and I wish more of my legal counterparts would get on board with this idea.

And contracts can be fun. Recently I saw an episode of Man v. Food where Adam Richman took on the Hellfire Challenge at Smoke Eaters – 12 wings covered in crazy hot sauce. Before he could begin the challenge he had to sign a waiver that required the person signing to acknowledge that “I am an idiot.”

You can put almost anything you want in your contract as long as it isn’t illegal. And if you downloaded your contract templates off the internet, that’s not a bad place to look for ideas, but you should at least consult an attorney to make sure it suits your needs before you start using it. If the contract is valid and you sign it, you’re stuck with the terms so you want to make sure you’re not opening yourself up to get screwed over.

If you need additional information about the minimum you need for a valid contract, please check out my video below or here.


If you want to chat about your contract needs, please send me an email or contact a business attorney in your community.

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