When I picked up my very first camera over 30 years ago, I had no aspirations to ever become a professional photographer, I just had fun taking pictures. I never thought about any commercial value of my images, and even less about legal issues, releases or insurance. In other words, I had no clue at all, I was occupied enough to figure out Aperture and Shutter-speed, over time I discovered composition and light, I just had a blast. Later down the track, when the hobby slowly turned into a job, I had to painfully learn that most of the images I produced over the years could not be used commercially, simply because I never asked anyone to sign a release form. Looking back, I wish someone would have given me a few hints in this regard, and I shall do just this with this post.
Let me start with saying that I can not give any definite legal advice in this post, first of all I’m a photographer and not a lawyer, and secondly, the laws and regulations are different in every country, and also vary from state to state. I can however give you a few hints, and hopefully point you in the right direction.
When I speak about “protecting yourself”, I talk about three different areas:
1- Protection of gear and unforeseen circumstances
2- Protection of commercial (usage) rights
3- Protection of privacy
Your gear can easily be damaged, lost or stolen, and it makes obvious sense to ensure your equipment. Depending on it’s value, it might be covered by your household insurance, but don’t just bet on it, give your insurance company a call and specifically ask for it. You might need a separate insurance to be fully covered. A good way to find the right information is to contact one of your national photographers association, they usually know which companies offer specific photographer insurance. The way such insurance is handled is different from country to country, and it is worth comparing various offers (and make sure your equipment is not only insured at home or in a studio, but also “on location” etc).
Another part of “covering yourself” is to look into “professional indemnity” and “public liability” insurance (in the U.S. more commonly known as errors & omissions). Without going into too much detail, in short: these will provide cover from potential threats, such as claims for alleged negligence or breach of duty etc. Someone might trip over your camera bag and break a leg, or a light-stand falls on their head, and you will be held responsible for it. If the injured person needs medical attention, or is not able to work for several month due to such an incident, this can quickly become a very expensive experience without the right insurance.
At the end of the day, it’s better to be safe than sorry, speak to a specialised company in your area and inform yourself about these types of insurances.
2- RELEASE AGREEMENTS
Aside from obvious subjects like trees, mountains, clouds and wildlife, you will generally need a signed release agreement for mostly everything else, if you want to use/license/sell your images commercially. There are exceptions to this rule, images that are used for “news & current affairs”, in editorial publications etc, however these rules vary a fair bit from state to state and country to country, and I would strongly suggest to NOT believe everything you read online, but to speak to a local attorney (specialising in “intellectual property and copyrights”) instead. Aside from such exceptions, as a general rule, it is wise to get your subjects to always sign a release.
We mainly speak about two types of releases: A “model” release and a “property” release. Both are similar, however a “model” release is bound to the people you photograph, and a “property” release covers anything from architecture to parks, cats, dogs and any other “property” you could think of. If you photograph minors, a special “model release agreement for minors” (signed by the parents or legal guardians) must be used.
I repeat myself here, but just like with all the other points raised, the same is true for releases: Do not blindly copy any release agreement you find online, but consult your local attorney. The requirements for such releases are very different depending on where you shoot (and where you might want to monetize your images down the track).
A good way to start is to use one of the “international” release apps. I personally use “TopModelRelease” for iPhone and iPad, created by photographer Catherine Hall. Not only are all legal texts written by a specialist IP lawyer, but the app also includes the releases in many different languages, which becomes extremely helpful when you travel.
3- NON DISCLOSURE AGREEMENT
The last (and least discussed) agreement is a “non-disclosure” agreement. Depending on who you photograph, or what style, this can become a very important document. A non-disclosure agreement mainly states, that one (or both) of the involved parties can NOT disclose the images produced (or even mention the actual production) without the consent of the other party.
I give you two examples where this becomes relevant: I have been commissioned to create portraits of the young children of a world-wide celebrity (which I can’t name, of course). For the safety of her children, it is important that these images will not “leak” to the press etc. As part of the assignment, my lawyer has set-up a non-disclosure agreement, stating that I will not release any of the produced images, not even mention that I have produced these.
Another example would be if you create fine-art or artistic nude images for a client. Such a (private) client might not think about it, but I am sure they would appreciate if you would offer to sign such a non-discloser agreement as well. At the very least (aside from all legal aspects), it clearly shows that you are a true professional, who takes his customers, their privacy, and his own work seriously.