What is a Copyright and a Model Release?

This is by no means a legal article!  I’m not here to preach laws and reference sections of it – I’m writing this article with the intentions of education the reader as to what the difference between a copyright and a model release are and how they are an important part of the photography industry.

A copyright, in it’s most basic form, refers to the owner of the photo.  As a photographer, any photo I take with my camera, I own the copyright to.  This means that it cannot be used or reproduced in any way by anyone else without my permission.

However, simply owning a copyright to a photo does not necessarily mean that it can be displayed!  That’s where the model release comes into play.  When you’re taking a photo of a person (or persons), any identifiable individuals in that photo must give their permission for that photo to be made public.

This means that just because I own the copyright to the photos I took with Jane Doe, I can’t display her pictures unless she also signs a model release form.  However, the up-close detail-style photo I took of John Doe’s boutonniere at his wedding can be displayed sans model release as there is no identifiable information within it.

As I wrap up this short and sweet article, I just wanted to bring up the ever-so-touchy subject of waiving a model release form.  Many photographers are starting to notice that their clients are requesting that the model release form be waived; this means that the clients are requesting that no identifiable photos ever be published.  Every photographer has a different way of dealing with this situation and there is no “right” or “wrong” way to deal with it – there is simply a negotiation that must take place.  If you’re a photographer and you have a client requesting that the model release form be waived, you should strongly consider:

  • Having a strong legal contract stating which types of photos can and cannot be published.  (Silhouette shots or shots where a face cannot be seen fall into a grey area as the subject is not clearly identifiable yet still in the photo)
  • Specify where the photos can or cannot be published (Some clients simply ask for a ‘no facebook’ publication but are okay with blogs – if this is the case, get it all in writing)
  • Specify which subjects cannot be published (Sometimes it’s just the groom who doesn’t want his picture up but the bride is okay with it; if that’s the case, you can still showcase any photos that don’t contain the groom!)
  • Obtaining a monetary compensation for the damages that a limited portfolio can cause.  (If a client is requesting total privacy of photos, that means that you’re losing out on your portfolio, your Facebook is less active, your blog SEO stats suffer and your ability to share these photos with the other vendors and network with them suffers.)

If you are a client (specifically a wedding client) who is interested in asking a photographer to waive the model release form, you must:

  • Be prepared to pay a compensation fee for the limitation you are putting on an artists portfolio and the effect is can have on future business.
  • Understand that non-identifiable photos of the event will still be published as the photographer will always own the copyrights to the photos.
  • Understand that your wedding guests will have cameras too!  They’ll go home and upload their photos to facebook, flickr, twitter, blogs (and so on and so forth) and your image will be out there on the internet before you even leave for your honeymoon.

So that’s a very, very broad overview of the difference between a copyright and a model release and how they work in the photography industry!


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