Contracts, Releases, and “Where Are My Pictures”?

Contracts, Releases, and “Where Are My Pictures”?

This group seems to have a lot of newbs in it, and that’s really great. New talent – in front of and behind the camera – is always good. But there seems to be (as usual) a lot of inaccurate and naive information being shared. I will now impart some of what I have learned over the 20+ years I have been a semi-professional photographer.

Model Releases
These are for the protection of the photographer. If you read a simple model release –… – you can see that the model/subject grants unlimited rights to the use of the photos to the photographer. A standard model release does NOT protect the model. It is for the benefit of the photographer. In almost all cases, a model is safer by not signing a release. A release allows the photographer to use the photos for commercial gain – to sell or promote a good or service. Portfolio use doesn’t need a release. Editorial use doesn’t need a release. Sales and even publication of photos doesn’t need a release (hint to the models – you do not own the copyright on photos. The photographer does. The end – no discussion).

I usually do not have models sign releases because there is virtually no commercial market for generic pictures of generic pretty faces. This has bit me on the ass exactly twice in 20+ years when I had to circle back to models to get releases so their photos could be used as set decoration on The Walking Dead (seriously – too bad the photos ended up on the editing floor – but the check cleared).

Make sure you read and understand the release before you sign it!!

Use Agreement
A use agreement is a separate agreement that is sometimes part of a model release. The use agreement lays out exactly how the photographer or subject can use the photos. Usually this agreement is case specific and time restricted (the photos are to be used for submission for publication).

“Where are my pictures?”
Great. You have an email thread that lays out what, where, when, and the “valuable consideration” (you did read the model release, right?). A model release was signed. A use agreement was signed. Uh oh! You never got your photos or the photographer sold a photo that is now being used outside of the agreed use. Whatever will you do? “GET AN ATTORNEY!” comes the hue and cry from the on-line warriors. Yeah, good luck with that.

Enforcement of private contracts is not free. An attorney will cost you hundreds – even thousands – of dollars. If there is a written agreement and the “damages” are under $15,000 you can go to small claims court ( without an attorney if you have the time and dedication to file the claim, provide all of the documentation, take time out of your work day months from now to appear in court and win…. what exactly? Even if the court says, “Yep, dick head photographer owes you $500 and seven photos,” you still have to collect – and that requires additional costly legal work.

In other words, as I said before, a contract is only as valid as the money you have to enforce it.

So what do you do??
Give the photographer a chance to explain or rectify the situation. If he/she fail you learn your lesson, and you out the offender. Let other models know what happened. That’s about the end of it. You should, of course, be completely factual and add no embellishment or “feeling” to anything. Just state the provable and demonstrable facts. Keep your emails, texts, and voice messages. Be honest and dispassionate. Never ever say anything disparaging about the character of the photographer or her talent.

Just the facts, ma’am.

A contract is not a magic scroll. It is an agreement between entities, and agreements can be broken. Unless you have bucks, oh well…


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