Model Release Forms, What are they?

If you have been asked to sign a model release form by a studio or photographer, and are worried about the formality of the legal document, or simply want to gain a better understanding of their purpose, the following information is for you:

How common is this?

Model releases are very common in all kinds of industries – far more than just the film industry and can even be found in the form of a simple but prominently placed notice informing you that upon entry it is an indication of your agreement to be filmed and/or photographed and where your image and likeness may be used for commercial purposes such as when you enter a venue, attend a local event, or walk into a store that happens to be actively trying to film or have photos taken of their business for social media or marketing purposes. This type of notice though will often need to be accompanied by information regarding who or where you need to go to inform someone that you do not wish to have your image be used in such a way.

Although the notice isn’t what you’ll likely experience when arriving at a studio or meeting with a photograph, it’s mentioned more so to illustrate just how common these releases are and offers an example of the different form it can take, even if it is not very common.

It is perfectly understandable that people sometimes feel hesitant to give out their signature, especially on a what’s considered a legal document that mentions something about ‘waiving your rights’ and can sound alarming if you don’t know what you’re looking at. Hopefully answers to some of the most common questions regarding Model Release Forms provided below will help settle any concerns you may have.

What do I need to sign a model release?

In order to use a video or photograph publicly, photographers and/or studios (producer/director/casting director) need proof that the individuals in the production have given their consent for the work that the individual appears in.

This is especially true for industry, commercial, and corporate uses, but even a picture used for an editorial story, feature, or article in a magazine may be provided through an agency of whom will require a release for all pictures/photos as a matter of standard procedure, simply because they are considered to be intended for commercial use and will act as editorial pictures.

In the past, it was almost exclusively contracting professionals who would ask for releases, but with the ever-evolving internet and web-based services that exist which can be used for self-promotion, many aspiring photographers and amateurs will hope to have the photos they take be featured publicly on various websites or other publications, and may ask you for a release to help them with this.

In the adult industry in particular, model releases are important because it is also legal proof that the individual gave their consent and was not forced into doing something against their will. In this case, you might also be required to provide a form of government-issued identification in order to sign the release. To take it a step further, they will likely require you to hold up your ID so that a photo can be taken of you to prove that it was in fact you at the time and place they said you were and that you have provided such evidence to them of your own free will.

Is the studio or photographer going to get rich off me?

It’s not likely and extremely rare to see this happen.

Unless your video or pictures gets used to advertise something on a massive billboard in the middle of Times Square in New York City or is going to be on the cover of a prestigious magazine then chances are the photographer isn’t going to be getting rich off just one photo. And, as much as you may enjoy that, it is unlikely.

One other condition that may be an exclusion to this understanding is if the photographer  or artist is very well-known and often sells their content or work to high-profile, wealthy, and affluent individuals who pay exceptionally well for their work. But in this case, if you’re lucky enough to be shooting with them, you’ll also be paid just as well in return (but that may not always be the case)

More likely it will be used in a gallery, online portfolio, or alongside other similar works, and/or may even appear as part of a simple graphic on a related website. It’s also possible that it won’t be used at all and will simply be kept on file in the hope that one day it will be just the right video or photo that is needed for a particular purpose.

What’s in it for me?

Signing the model release comes with some benefits for you…

  1. Payment. For various industry productions and castings, you can usually expect payment or fulfillment of compensation after signing the release for any content that is produced. While payment is much more common in adult-related work, it can be considered the most important part of any agreement you have in the content you appear in, even test shoots where you exchange your time for a professional’s time or service (usually payment in the form of professional retouched and shot photos).
  2. Publicity & Attention. The possibility of appearing on a popular website or  possibly an advertisement for similar work.
  3. Exposure & Future work. The chance of more work or castings in the future.

What are the downsides for me?

There are also some things to keep in mind, such as:

  1. You no longer ‘own’ the content. If you have copies of the work you’ve signed a release for, in most cases you will not be able to do anything else with it except keep it for yourself or you’ll be restricted to very particular uses only that are often associated with non-commercial uses with the exception of possibly using it for your own personal job-seeking efforts. In adult film, more often than not you will not be permitted to sell it, post it, or share it with others because the individual who holds the release becomes the owner of that work and reserves all rights associated with its reproduction, distribution, derived works, and otherwise any of it’s use. This is why, you’ll more often  be paid upfront for a particular work and can be thought of similar to working for an employer who pays you to create something and when it’s complete, it’s owned by the employer who paid you for creating it.
  2. Time to fill it out. It may take a few minutes to read through and review the model release form, especially if you’re unfamiliar with the legal jargon that can sometimes seem overwhelming in addition to filling out all the necessary information. Some forms will be more detailed than others in having you confirm the time of day, day of the week, the location, etc. while others are more simply stated and may be more broad in scope simply due to a lack of significant need to underscore any parts of the terms (for example, a photograph who wants to use your photos on their Instagram to promote their photography business wouldn’t need to identify and have you confirm that the shoot took place at a particular time and place. While you may need to initial some portions or sign in multiple places, It’s usually just the reading portion that is most time consuming.

Why is the document so complicated?

Because businesses must always be aware of the risks associated with liabilities. To ensure they minimize their risk, they hire lawyers to write up their legal documents. As such, lawyers are lawyers, and they want all possibilities covered.

Model releases are designed to be legally binding documents and why it was originally much more common in the past to be used by only professionals. Similar to how you might hear about using copywritten music in a YouTube video resulting in an account suspension or inability to monetize a video, the same can be done against a studio or photographer who uses images they took of you without your permission. It’s not quite the same as a DMCA takedown request but you have a reasonable expectation of privacy which is especially more prevalent when photos are taken in private and in turn are used without your knowledge or consent and of course, without a model release that explicitly gives them permission to do so.

More often than not, the more extensive and complicated forms are, the more likely it’s being used by big budget production companies as a means of reducing their liabilities by laying out all the ways in which the content now belongs to them and will usually help you understand any portion of the agreement you might not understand and otherwise compensates you (hopefully generously) for releasing/waiving your rights with regard to any form of ownership to the content containing images and depictions of you.

Anything else I should know?

Simply put, most agreements or release forms are to transfer the title of ownership and generally protect the one requesting a release form from running into legal actions that may be entitled to someone who did NOT sign a release. In some cases, particularly involving adult work, they may even face penalties for failing to keep accurate records supporting claims that you were of legal age (an adult) to act and decide on your own, provided your consent of your participation in whatever content was created and that you were not subdued, coerced, or forced against your will into participating in the making of the content. As such, releases legally make it known that you acted on your own accord and free will and was informed of how the content will be used. Generally, this is mentioned as any form of use to promote their business.

In the adult film industry, it may include verbiage that indicates the studio or photography attests to having made sure you were of legal age and that they made a sincere effort to check that you were how old you say you were and will also include terms that make clear where the content is intended to be posted or displayed so that they have done their part in making every effort in informing you how it will be used. As again, a means of reducing their liabilities so that you don’t come back saying, “I didn’t know it was going to be used on a website that has 200,000 million unique visitors a day!”

A quick tip!

If there were any special conditions related to the shoot that you wanted to ensure the photographer, studio or content producer followed through with in keeping their word on, it would serve your best interest to have them include those conditions in your release form.

For example, a photography may want to use a photo of you that may be provocative in nature and you’re only comfortable with those photos being used in their portfolio if the photographer agrees to ensure you cannot be identified by blocking out or cropping out your face. To ensure the photographer doesn’t try to publish the photo with your face still in the picture, you may want to consider asking if they can add an addendum or conditional use clause stating that they only have your permission to use your photo or content for commercial purposes or for public display if and only if the image does not contain your face or any portion of the original image is used that could be used to identify or confirm your identity (such as a unique tattoo or one with your name and that is normally exposed due to its placement on your body) and/or ultimately renders you unidentifiable.

In this case, however, professional photographers will generally have an Anonymous Model Release to provide you with in place of the general model release.

Hopefully you found this helpful!

In case you’re interested in a similar topic, you might want to read this post from which answers the question:

Can Someone Take My Photo Without Permission? (Opens a new tab)