By Andrew Hudson Published: August 13, 2012 Updated: August 22, 2013
Photos featuring recognizable people have two significant legal issues: copyright and privacy/publicity. The photographer (the person who pressed the shutter-release) owns the copyright in the photo. The model does not own the copyright (unless agreed otherwise in writing and signed by the photographer). The model, however, does own rights to their likeness. This is called privacy/publicity.
Often, neither party can sell or otherwise use for profit the resulting photos until the other party agrees. This is usually accomplished with a model release, which can be a short, written and signed statement by the model allowing the photographer to use images featuring the recognizable likeness of the model. The model should also ask for a similar agreement by the photographer, allowing use of the photo for promotional purposes, or whatever.
Model photos are often created on a trade-for-print basis, where both parties contribute their time for free, in exchange for the other party’s usage permission. Many people leave this permission as a verbal, hand-shake understanding; whereas a written and signed agreement is the best way to avoid future complications.
“[T]he nature of the thing depicted or the subject of the photograph … is not regarded as a copyrightable element.”
— U.S. Copyright Office, Compendium II of Copyright Office Practices, §508.01