What if Model Dies Without Signing a Model Release

Strange Photosession Outside the National Theatre, Prague by Staffan Cederborg from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

A photographer recently asked if they could use images if there was no model release signed when the images were taken, and the model has since passed away. Does a persons’ right of publicity survive death?

Anyone who knows me knows the answer to every legal question starts with, “It depends.”

Right of Publicity is a State-Level Law

A person has a right to control how their image is used for commercial purposes. These rights are governed by state-level laws. Unless there’s a contract that specifies otherwise, the state where the images were taken will likely be the state law that applies to your situation.

However, if you use the images without a model release, and the surviving heirs object, they may claim that the state laws where the model resided apply.

The Professional Photographers of America (PPA) created a white paper called Model Release that includes a list of the state statutes that pertain to model releases. Please note, according to the white paper, this list of statutes was accurate as of 2010, so it is best to verify that any laws that are applicable to you are still accurate.

In addition to statutes, there may be state-level common laws that pertain to model releases as well. These are based on case law that has come through the courts. If you need help researching case law, you should visit your local law library or consult a lawyer.

The Model May Have Other Rights

If the model was a celebrity or was a public figure, their name, image, likeness may be protected by other laws, such as trademark and/or copyright.

If the model owned these trademarks and/or copyright at the time of their death, these things would be passed on to others as stated in the model’s will or by statute if the model died without a will.

Websites May Require a Model Release

Even if you are not required to have a model release to use the images of the now-deceased model for commercial purposes – i.e., selling prints, licensing the images, or using the images in your portfolio for marketing purposes – there may be other restrictions on your ability to use the images, depending on where you want to display them.

There are online platforms where photographers can showcase their work that require a model release for every identifiable person in the image. If an identifiable person is deceased, the photographer must get a model release signed by the decedent’s heirs or next of kin.

Always Get a Model Release

Of course, all of these issues can be avoided by having the model sign a model release at the time of the photo shoot.

Lights Camera Lawsuit

There’s always a need for quality legal information for photographers. That’s why I created an online course called Lights Camera Lawsuit: The Legal Side of Professional Photography to address photographers’ most important questions – including what terms to include in your contracts and how to deal with copyright infringement.

The pre-sale for this course will be from Friday, February 14, 2020 until Tuesday, February 18, 2020. The pre-sale price is $199 – that’s 60% off the $497 regular price that people will pay when the course goes live in March 2020.  

Please subscribe to make sure you don’t miss out on this fantastic pre-sale price. I’ll never offer this course at this price again.

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.

Lights Camera Lawsuit

There’s always a need for quality legal information for photographers. That’s why I created an online course called Lights Camera Lawsuit: The Legal Side of Professional Photography to address photographers’ most important questions – including what terms to include in your contracts and how to deal with copyright infringement.

The pre-sale for this course will be from Friday, February 14, 2020 until Tuesday, February 18, 2020. The pre-sale price is $199 – that’s 60% off the $497 regular price that people will pay when the course goes live in March 2020.  

Please subscribe to make sure you don’t miss out on this fantastic pre-sale price. I’ll never offer this course at this price again.

YouTube Reinstated my Video

Webtreats - 272 YouTube Icons Promo Pack by webtreats from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Webtreats – 272 YouTube Icons Promo Pack by webtreats from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Last month, YouTube pulled one of my videos within hours of it being released. My videos are typically uploaded in advanced and released early every Wednesday morning. That was the strangest message to wake up to.

The weird thing was that the videos on this challenge are mostly Q&A for legal questions about business, intellectual property, and internet law. Occasionally, I talk about more risqué topics like revenge porn and legal issues related to posting or sharing intimate photos and videos, but this video was about publicity rights. (The question I received was poorly phrased. As written it sounded like he/she could have been asking about human trafficking, but I’m pretty sure they were asking about the right of publicity.)

Since life is blog material, instead of posting the video that day, I posted about how YouTube pulled my video for allegedly violating their Community Guidelines. I do not know if someone reported my video as offensive or if an automatic process within YouTube detected suspicious verbiage and removed it automatically.

Initially, I was going to let it go, thinking “Their site, their rules;” but a friend suggested I appeal the decision. (I wish I could remember who suggested this! Thank you!) I went into the firm’s YouTube channel and submitted an appeal with a short note explaining that the purpose of the video was a discussion of publicity rights, not an endorsement of human trafficking. About a day later, I received the following response:

Thank you for submitting your video appeal to YouTube. After further review, we’ve determined that your video doesn’t violate our Community Guidelines. Your video has been reinstated and your account is in good standing.

In case you missed it, here’s the video that led to this predicament:

I’m glad this situation has a happy ending. The lesson I learned from all of this is that it’s worth it to appeal YouTube’s decision if you think a video was pulled in error. If you have any questions about a YouTube video or any other questions about social media law, you can contact me directly or connect with me on TwitterFacebookYouTube, or LinkedIn.