Book Review: A Digital Photographer's Guide to Model Releases
“A Digital Photographer's Guide to Model Releases:
An Important Reference Book for Understanding the Legalities of Selling and Using Photographs,”
by Dan Heller (Wiley, $29.99)
By Ron Eggers
Successful professional photographers need to not only be good at photography and have business sense, they also need a basic understanding of the laws involved in using their pictures. Whether shooting editorial, commercial or stock photos, photographers should know the legalities concerning the people in their compositions, as well as recognizable property.
That’s what Dan Heller covers in his book, “A Digital Photographer's Guide to Model Releases: Making the Best Business Decisions with Your Photos of People, Places and Things” (Wiley, $29.99).
As he says, it's important to understand the rationale behind the model release requirements in order to protect yourself from potential litigation. It's also important to understand what you can and can't take pictures of, as well as where you can and can't use those pictures.
Most people think that releases are simply for the photographer’s protection. That's not how Heller sees it. "The main objective of getting a release is not to protect yourself; it's to make the image more marketable to a broader range of clients."
He makes a recommendation regarding your thinking about model releases: “Adjust your way of looking at legal matters. They are not a series of rules, but a series of concepts." And while there are laws dealing with photo usage and release requirements, he says, "The legal realm of when model releases are required is hazy at best, as the principles are based on the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which [itself] is the source of many disagreements."
Digital imaging and the Internet have had a fundamental impact on photography, says Heller. The digital convergence is changing how pictures are marketed and distributed, and how they’re being used. It’s extending the opportunity to make money with photographs to just about anyone with a digital camera. "The Internet and photography joined to create not just a new wave of interest in the art, but the social networking aspects have also given rise to new business opportunities for nonprofessional photographers." Photography is becoming much more egalitarian, he adds. "Just about anyone with a camera and an Internet connection can and does engage in the business of photography and make money, and they're doing so in rising numbers."
Some of the points Heller makes about the ease of getting into stock photography are oversimplified, but he does point out that digital imaging has changed the very nature of stock photography. Usage rights have always been complicated, and they're even more so in the digital age as traditional boundaries between editorial and commercial usage are evaporating.
Many people think they understand the subject of model release requirements better than they actually do. "When you combine that misinformation with fear or greed, people tend to swing to either overly conservative or overly liberal interpretations of legal maters," states Heller. Along the same lines, the people in the photographs often have misconceptions about the rights to and ownerships of the image. "They usually believe they have ultimate control of how (or whether) a photo can ever be used." In reality, the subjects’ expectations about their rights far exceed their actual rights.
In most cases, photographers who are just entering the field who are able to take advantage of the earning opportunities have no idea about the legal requirements of picture usage. Even many long-time professionals only have vague concepts of what's required when it comes to model and property releases. There’s a reason for that, Heller explains. "The laws regarding models releases are not codified as they are with traffic laws. The greatest mistake you can make is assuming that the law is written so clearly and unambiguously that you can just look up the questions in a book and get answers." Of course, he wrote a book where you can do just that. Certainly, the law is open to interpretation, but there are specific legal requirements of when a release is or is not required for editorial, commercial and stock image usage. Heller initially makes those legalities a little more vague and nebulous than they actually are, but he does go on later to rectify those shortcomings.
After a brief introduction, the author breaks the book down into seven parts. Each starts out with an outline of the essentials that are going to be covered in that section. Individual sections deal with thinking about model releases, what a model release actually is, understanding photo usage, analyzing the need for a release, taking a model release apart—piece by piece, and property releases.
Throughout the text Heller refers readers to additional information and further discussion on the topic. Laws vary from state to state, although there are similarities in some cases; he cites specific sections of the California legal code as examples of how the law views different situations.
Property releases present their own set of considerations. It’s a misconception that there are laws dealing with photographs of property, says Heller. Property law involves trademark and copyright issues. Only properties that have been trademarked or copyrighted need releases, and then only under limited conditions. Property releases are generally associated with buildings, but they can also apply to artwork, logos, clothing and other creations.
While the primary subject of the book is the model release, its also discusses ways to increase your photo sales and improve your marketing opportunities. It covers as well techniques for getting candid subjects to sign releases and how to work with stock photo agencies.
The final section deals with licensing and image ownership, covering such things as work-for-hire contracts and negotiation tactics. "In general," Heller notes, "the main objective for a license agreement is to be brief, to be quick, to give away as little as possible, and to assume as little responsibility as well. Because you start out owning everything and assuming no risk, it's always better to not have any sort of agreement that changes that position."
This heavily illustrated volume makes for easy reading. Simulated sticky-notes throughout the copy explain concepts, add personal interest and impart a little humor. Heller's interesting and diverse photographs not only illustrate specific points, but also add interest to a subject that’s generally dry.