December 2008: HelpLine
Most photographers aren’t legal professionals. When it comes to topics like model releases, copyright protection and other legal matters that photographers often face, get information and advice from organizations like the Professional Photographers of America (www.ppa.com). Even if you don’t make your living with photography, it’s good to be educated on the ins and outs of your rights and liabilities.
Q) Photography is a hobby of mine and I recently began researching submitting photos to stock companies. However, I have some questions about releases. Model releases are self-evident, but property releases seem a bit more complicated. I’ve been holding off submitting photos to stock companies because I don’t know all the ins and outs of property releases and can’t find any good references or guidelines. For example, if you photograph a street scene, buildings only, do you need property releases from each owner/resident? What about derelict buildings with no apparent contact information? What are my obligations to find the owner? Additionally, if you take a close-up of a building and the property isn’t readily identifiable, is a property release needed? What about boats? Trains? Planes? Finally, where do you draw the line on the need for property releases when you’re photographing subjects like monuments, national parks, castles (I’ve just spent three years in Europe), bridges, etc.?
I know there are a lot of nuances to each of these questions and you more than likely can’t provide what may be construed as legal advice, but is there a professional association that lists common practices (I know state laws vary)? Also, can you recommend a good reference book that explains all these intricacies of releases? I haven’t found anything with sufficient detail. Many thanks.
Via the Internet
A) The timing of your question is interesting. Recently, I’ve been shooting people more frequently for my books and have been researching model releases for some time. Publishers are very particular about releases, and they should be; they experience what happens when the i’s aren’t dotted and the t’s aren’t crossed.
The timing also is interesting in that when I received your question I had just left Photoshop World. This twice-yearly gathering of all things Photoshop contains photography tracks that range from using layer masks to shooting layer cakes. One of the sessions I sat in on dealt with model releases. Photographer Jack Reznicki and lawyer Edward C. Greenberg gave an entertaining and somewhat scary talk on many of the myths and legends about releases.
Some of their stories are both incredible and frightening at the same time. But what I took away from that short but information-filled session is a question that Ed asked: “Why do photographers ask other photographers for legal advice?” It’s an interesting question. To take it a step further, if you accidentally broke your finger closing up a tripod, would you ask a photographer how to fix it? Even though the damage was caused by photography equipment, I think you’d be heading to an emergency room, not a portrait studio.
While this may seem a little harsh, I think it’s a good wakeup call to all of us to make sure we ask the right people. Much as I’d like to think (and that my editor thinks) I know everything, I haven’t passed the bar exam, and my legal vocabulary comes from four years of Latin and Hamilton Burger. (I’m dating myself on that reference!)
But since I’m not going to be the resource, I’ll point you to one organization where Jack is involved: the Professional Photographers of America, Inc. Their website is www.ppa.com.
You mention that “model releases are self-evident.” After listening to Jack and Ed’s session at Photoshop World, I wouldn’t be so sure.