Why You Need Model Releases and Property Releases

Table of contents

Whether you are an amateur or professional photographer, getting people to sign photography release forms is an essential part of your job that keeps you safe.  

Releases are legal documents that establish guidelines and restrictions for using a photo with recognizable faces or assets. It protects the model or property depicted from unauthorized use of the model’s likeness or the property.

Here is a brief outline of common questions and concerns regarding model and property releases. Keep in mind that this is intended to be informational only, and you should always seek legal advice for your own country and jurisdiction, as different rules may apply.

What is a release?

In photography, a release is an agreement signed by the subject (model(s)) or owner of the property (this can include property like trademarks, art, and buildings) at the time of the photoshoot agreeing that the images of the model(s) and property can be used in a certain way.

Not all uses may require a release. Generally, if content is being used editorially, meaning descriptive purposes such as news reporting and discussion of current events or other human interest topics, without association with a brand or in promotion of goods or services, releases are not required. However, if the image will be used for any commercial, promotional, advertorial, endorsement, advertising, or merchandising purpose, model and property releases are generally required.

Thus, a release’s primary purpose is to grant you (the photographer) permission to include the subject in your work and acknowledge that the image can then also be used for non‑editorial (ie., commercial) purposes.

Model release

A model release is the type of release that deals with people. It is used to ensure that any identifiable person in your photos agrees to be in them, and gives permission so the images can be used for commercial purposes. Providing a model release is often a requirement for submitting content for licensing with stock photo agencies, such agencies may even have a prescribed form that must be used.  

If the image will be used commercially, keep in mind that you likely need a signed release form for anyone appearing in the image, including children, family members, and even people appearing in a street photo. So, make sure you have the right angle for your shoots.

Property release

A property release grants rights to use images with recognizable private properties in them. Like model releases, the property release should acknowledge that the image can be used for commercial uses.

A property release will usually also cover intellectual property that is visually depicted (like brands or trademarks), work of art, animals, graffiti, an identifiable physical location, and buildings.

Why releases are important

You probably have some ideas about why you need to obtain property or model releases. The primary purpose is to protect you, any licensees of your content, against claims of infringement of a third party’s intellectual property rights (in respect to property releases) or a violation of privacy or publicity rights (in respect to model releases), but here are more reasons property or model releases are essential.

Grants flexibility

If your picture features recognizable people or property, how that picture can be used significantly depends on whether you have a signed release form related to it which includes an acknowledgment that the images can be used for commercial uses, in all types of media. As such, the types of projects a released image can be used in considerably increases after permission has been given. Failing that, the images likely can only be used for editorial purposes.

Reduces legal risks

Signed property or model release forms reduce the chance you or users of your content will receive claims about infringing intellectual property rights, or publicity rights, and in the event of such a claim, the releases can help refute the claim. Releases help provide evidence that you have the right (or green light) to use or sell the piece without requiring further approval from the people or privately owned properties appearing in it.

With iStock’s wide variety of royalty‑free images that are confirmed as model and/or property released and easily licensed on the website, you do not have to verify or obtain the releases yourself, and the content can be used in a variety of commercial and editorial end uses, subject to a few restrictions.

Check out some of our sample stock photos here.

Provides confidence to the buyer or the photo stock website

If you are a photographer and want to place your work with a licensing agency,  using industry‑standard releases and keeping diligent records will help you get your content uploaded quickly and out to market.

When is a signed model or property release needed?

It’s crucial to be aware of scenarios when you need a signed release and when you don’t. These documents serve to protect all the parties from any future confusion that may be involved in trading the image, i.e., you (the photographer), the model or property (owner), and the buyer.

When is a model release needed?

Here are a few examples in which you will need to have people sign a model release form for your photos before you can use them or supply them to third parties:

  • Identifiable subjects: For any identifiable faces, hands, feet, or any human parts, ensure you get the subject to sign a model release form.
  • Illustration of a person: Illustrations or artwork based on real people or body parts.
  • People in the background: Images or clips that show recognizable people passing in the field (street photos, for example).
  • Videos with human voices: Especially for clips. People can recognize their voices, so you will need a model release for the speaker.
  • Self‑portraits: Here, you need to sign the release as both the photographer and the model.

When is a property release needed?

Here are a few examples in which you will need to have the property owner sign a property release form for your photos before you can use them.

  • Properties with a photography policy: This can be any place like stadiums, concert halls, museums, and amusement parks.
  • Copyrighted works: Any books, works of art, maps, and fictional characters.
  • Famous landmarks: Any historic or recognizable modern places and architecture.
  • Private buildings: Recognizable private home or private building exteriors or interiors.
  • Exclusive animals: Such as award‑winning dogs, racehorses, famous pets, zoo animals, etc.
  • Recognizable products or things (or their shapes): Distinctive products or luxury furniture, toys, vehicles, or airplanes.

Release form FAQs

Here are some frequently asked questions about model and property releases.

What if I don’t have a signed model or property release form?

Suppose you own a piece of video or photography with recognizable human faces, body parts, or properties. A signed release form is required to use the image for any commercial purpose. Otherwise, the content should only be used for editorial purposes.

How do I know if the image has a release?

Keep in mind that not all images come with a signed model or property release form attached to them. You can check the release status for any item of content on the asset detail page.

If the photo is not clearly marked as being model and/or property released and you are looking for an image to use commercially, it is advisable to search for a similar image that does come with a model and/or property release.

What if the model or property owner is deceased?

Many jurisdictions protect an individual’s right of publicity for an extended period of time post‑mortem, if a model release was not secured you may have to secure permissions from the deceased model’s heirs or estate. You should consult with your local legal counsel to understand what rights may apply and help determine if the right of publicity has expired.

Release form agreement samples

If you would like to view sample model releases, you can find some here. Again, keep in mind that different jurisdictions may have different requirements for releases, as well as the agency that you may wish to license your images to for further distribution. You should always review what your own local requirements may be.
Here is a library of templates from Getty Images that you can adjust to your liking and use in your activities.

Recommended for you

Life's a journey, enjoy the ride Copyright & Licensing Common Misconceptions About “Copyright-Free” Images When you’re looking for images for a project, you may have heard the terms “copyright-free” and “royalty-free” and wondered what they meant. Can you use “copyright-free” images for commercial use? And what does “royalty-free” mean? What is copyright in the first place?
Youtuber editing video on laptop for up to worldwide through Copyright & Licensing Public Domain Videos: What are they and how are they used? Learn about public domain videos and how to use them in your next creative project. Furthermore, understand the benefits of using paid stock footage over public domain videos.
Grandfather teaching his granddaughter to cook Marketing How to Choose More Authentic, More Engaging Stock Imagery Unnatural stock imagery can distract from your overall project. Use these tips to find stock imagery that feels real and helps connect with your audience.
iStock Staff