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I’ve signed a model release – what rights do I have?

Shot of young man sitting at table looking away and thinking. Thoughtful businessman sitting home office.
Ammentorp Photography / Alamy Stock Photo

Get to grips with the rights you have once you’ve signed a model release and the situations when a release is and isn’t needed.

There are couple of reasons why you might be featured in a stock photo:

  1. You were in a public place and a photograph was taken without you knowing, that the photographer is now selling on a stock photo site. If this is the case, check out our blog on what to do if you see yourself in a stock image
  2. You’ve agreed to be in the image, given permission to the photographer and signed a model release – we’ll give you more info on what rights you have in this situation throughout this blog

First things first, what is a model release and when is one needed?

A model release is a legal document that the person or people featured in a photograph are required to sign to give the photographer permission to use or sell the image.

A photographer is required to get a model release signed if: 

  • A person or people are clearly recognisable in an image and the photographer wishes to use the image for commercial purposes
  • The image is being used on consumer goods or merchandise including a greetings card, t-shirt or calendar
  • The image is being used by a company in advertising or marketing materials and they have made it look like you’re endorsing their product

If you think a photo of you has been used in any of these ways without your permission you should contact the stock agency for advice, or contact your lawyer.

A photographer is not required to get a model release signed to sell images for editorial use if:

  • The photo was taken in a public place
  • The image is used for editorial purposes only – this includes use in a newspaper, magazine or article to support text
  • the photo is of a crowd – for example a shot of a crowd at a festival or of people walking through Oxford Circus
Crowd at a Music Festival
Rob Ball / Alamy Stock Photo

Things to consider before you sign a model release

Once you have signed a release, you have given consent for the photographer to use the image in the ways detailed on the release. So, before you sign, there are a few things you should consider…

Read what you’re signing and ask for your own copy

Model releases can vary so the permissions you are giving to the photographer can be different depending on what release they’re using e.g. some model releases will cover sensitive uses* and some won’t. Keep your copy safe, you never know when you might need it.

Does the model release form cover sensitive uses?

Sensitive use can include references to mental or physical health, social issues, sexual matters, drug or substance abuse, crime, political issues, or any other subject matter that could be considered offensive.

In our contributor contract we ask that all model releases from our photographers cover sensitive uses, but this might be different for other stock agencies, so make sure you know exactly what you’ve agreed to.

Is there a time frame given on the release? 

Most releases tend to not have an expiry date, so be sure to check before you sign. If you signed one 20 years ago, the chances are it still stands today.

Make sure you’re happy with what you’re signing

Once you have signed a model release, it acts as a legally binding document and there is little or nothing you’ll be able to do if you change your mind later on.

Take a look at a copy of our standard release form >

Portrait of two young female friends making moustache and spectacled faces on beach
Cultura RM / Alamy Stock Photo

When you might have a claim

If you’ve signed a release but discover the image is being used in a sensitive or defamatory (see definition below) way, you may be able to do something about it.

Defamatory use of an image covers an image being used:

  • alongside a statement that is false, offensive, harmful or that has been made without adequate research
  • alongside information that creates a false impression of a person(s) in the image
  • in a way that damages the reputation of the people in the image

Even if you have signed a release that includes a sensitivity clause, defamatory use is not ok and you should seek legal advice if you find an image of yourself being used in this way.

Read more about defamatory use in this article from Stanford University.

Editorial use

A model release isn’t needed for editorial use, even if an image is being used in a sensitive way. It’s best practice for image users to caption the images with ‘posed by [model name]’ but it isn’t a legal requirement.

However, if you see an image being used in a defamatory way, you should seek legal advice or contact the stock photo agency to report the image.

Commercial use

Commercial use of an image covers images that are being used to sell, promote or endorse a product or service, or raise money for a cause. This includes advertising, marketing materials, promotions, publication covers and consumer or merchandising products.

If you have signed a model release, you have given a photographer permission to use the image for commercial purposes. BUT, you should contact the stock photo agency that is selling the image for advice on the options you have if:

  • The image is being used commercially for a sensitive use, and the model release you signed did not include a sensitivity clause
  • The image is being used in a defamatory way

*Friendly disclaimer, we’re not lawyers and this advice could change. If you’re unhappy about the use of a specific photo that we’ve sold please email our copyright team or get some legal advice

Quick definitions:

Editorial use – Editorial use generally means when an image or clip is used to illustrate a newsworthy article, a critique or an educational text. A model release is not required for editorial use.

Commercial use – Commercial use generally means that an image is used to sell a product, promote something or raise money for a cause. This includes use in advertising, marketing, promotion, packaging, publication covers, advertorials and consumer or merchandising products.

Model Release – A legal release form signed by the person or people in a photograph, giving permission for the photographer to use or sell the photo in one form or another.

Sensitive use – Sensitive use includes references to mental or physical health, social issues, sexual references, drug/substance abuse, crime, political issues, or any other subject matter that would be reasonably likely to be offensive, defamatory or unflattering to any person in an image.

Defamatory use – Use of an image that damages the reputation of the people in it. Defamation occurs when information is published about a person that creates a false impression and injures the person’s reputation. 

Some handy links:

If you’re a photographer you can download our model and property releases here >

If you see yourself in a stock photo and haven’t signed a release, find out what you need to do in our blog ‘what to do if you see yourself in a stock photo’ >

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