The second in a three-part series about the different types of releases visual journalists need to obtain the proper rights to publish or distribute their work.
Please note: This article applies to rules governing journalism and documentary work, not commercial work or media used to promote or advertise a product or service. The regulations for those are more stringent.
What is a materials release?
A materials release is used if you have someone else’s original work appearing in your image or your video – whether it’s photographs, artwork, video, or audio. It gives you permission to use media which may be copyrighted or owned by another party.
When do I have to use one?
Within broadcast and documentary work, the most common reason a materials release is used is to include family photographs in your piece, or to make use of other pictures not taken by your or someone on your team.
If photos were professionally taken, such as in a studio setting, you will need a release from the photographer or copyright owner.
It’s important to note that this only gives you the rights of the person taking the photo, and not those of the people appearing in the photographs. You will need appearance releases for those people as well, even if they don’t feature prominently in your piece.
Materials releases are also needed for artwork on walls or elsewhere in your shot. If the artwork is an original piece done by a member of the family, have the author sign a materials release. As artwork is often done by an outside artist, however, many production companies suggest you either reframe your shot or move the artwork or the subject to avoid release issues. If you’re unable to get the artwork cleared, your publisher may ask you to blur it out.
Video and Audio
You will need a materials release for any video you don’t own the rights to, including family videos, archival footage, and news segments. Any exceptions to this would be when the use of outside materials would fall under fair use. Fair use is a complicated subject with many gray areas, so we recommend you read more into it as well as get releases wherever you can.
Where can I find a materials release?
You can download a basic materials release template from several sites. Here are three:
Please note that every project is different and laws vary from state to state, and from country to country. If you are uncertain about what the requirements may be and whether you need a release, check with a local lawyer who is familiar with the media regulations in the area. Generally speaking, it’s better to err on the safe side and get a release signed for any materials you’re unsure about. For a more in-depth legal analysis of releases, we recommend you read this article by the American Society of Media Photographers.
Some resources we recommend:
The Online Media Legal Network is a network of lawyers, firms, and school clinics within the U.S., that provide free or reduced-cost legal aid to “qualifying online journalism ventures and other digital media creators.”
The Digital Media Law Project provides free legal advice and resources regarding media law and intellectual property issues.
New Media Rights also provides free or reduced-cost legal services to individual and businesses with questions about media and intellectual property law, including copyright, licensing and First Amendment issues.