Releases, Part 3: Appearance Releases

The last 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 only applies to journalists working in the U.S. It does not cover commercial media or other countries’ regulations.

What is an appearance release?

An appearance release, also known as a personal or model release, is used when a person is appearing in your video, documentary or photo. It gives the filmmaker or photographer the rights to use that person’s likeness, and protects the publisher of the work in litigation.

When do I have to use one?

Generally speaking, if you are a photojournalist shooting for editorial purposes you don’t need a release to take people’s pictures at newsworthy events in the United States. You are protected under the first amendment.

However, if you are shooting on private property, or in a location where the individual in question would have a reasonable right to privacy, you should get an appearance release signed.

Some publications that sell images or footage to third parties will ask for a model release, given that the customer may want to use the image for commercial purposes.

Documentary filmmakers need to be more prudent because the material of the film may not always be considered newsworthy the way, for instance, breaking news broadcast  on TV is. The distributor of the film will want to make sure that they are legally covered, otherwise they may not accept the film. Thus, it’s important to have a release for each of your characters.

Lastly, if you are shooting minors you must have the child’s parent or legal guardian sign a release form on their behalf.

To make things more clear, here are situations when you must have an appearance release:

– If you are shooting for commercial purposes.

– If you are shooting a private event, even if it’s in a public place.

– If you are shooting on private property.

– If you are shooting minors.

What is editorial versus commercial use?

An editorial source’s main purpose is to inform and educate. TV, print and online publications usually fall under this category. Commercial use involves selling your images for any other use, including advertising or promotional purposes.

More tips:

Check with the publication you’re working for, as each establishment has different rules regarding releases. Some may be more stringent than those outlined in this article.

Always carry releases on you when you’re shooting. You never know when you’re going to need one, and it’s much easier to get the person to sign it on the spot than to track them down later.

Stay organized: have a method for easily matching the release to the person and image or footage in question.

If you’re not sure whether your footage will be used for commercial or editorial use, have the subject sign a release anyway. It’s better to err on the safe side.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.

Where can I find an appearance release?

You can download a basic materials release template from several sites. Here are three:

Video University: Releases for Film and Video

Viva Documentary Downloadable Forms Documentary Video Boot Camp Release Forms

Please note that every project is different and laws vary from state to state and 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 your area. Generally speaking, it’s better to err on the safe side and get a release signed for any subjects 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.

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