Using a Release Form for Photos and Videos

Use photos and videos of real people on your website! Don't let any of the stuff below scare you away from real images. They are much more compelling than pictures of your building, your president or pastor (not that they aren't real people), or models in stock photos.

It's pretty obvious that professional photographers and big commercial websites need to get permission before using someone's image in a photo or video on their site. But what about churches and small non-profits?

Disclaimer: I have no legal expertise. I'm just reporting what I've read and what makes sense to me.

A Few Principles

  • This is all about getting sued. By existing in the USA, you and your organization are at risk for being sued. Fact of life. You have to decide what precautions are worth pursuing to mitigate the risk. You're not going to hire a legal department, but you might be willing to keep track of some release forms.
  • Some people have legitimate reasons for not wanting their images on the web. For example, illegal immigrants, people with vindictive exes or stalkers, and certain government employees. I'm sure there are other reasons I'm not thinking of. Beyond protecting yourself from being sued, you want to be sensitive to the needs of these groups.
  • You may have previously used photos without releases on posters or in printed directories or annual reports. Putting them on the web raises the ante because now the whole world has access, not just the people who walk by the poster or the people who receive the directory.
  • Newspapers do not have to get releases because they use photos for "editorial" content, reporting on what happened. Some parts of your website may be interpreted as "editorial," but others are doing more promoting of your organization or cause. Any images used in the website header or on flyers are definitely promotional.
  • The risk of being sued varies with certain factors:
    • Can you identify the person in the photo?
    • Is it a staff member, dedicated volunteer, regular attender, or someone who  came to a single event?
    • Is the person under 18?
    • Are you including the name or any other identifying information about the person?
    • Did the person know he or she was being photographed or videoed?
  • To use a release form:
    • You need a form. Shorter is better since a long legal form will intimidate many people and they won't want to sign.
    • You need a plan to get the forms signed.
    • You need to file the forms somehow for future reference.

A Commonsense Approach

  • Use one short, basic form. Make it as inclusive as possible. Sample Release Form.
    • Include your organization's contact information in the header.
    • Basic text:
      • I hereby grant ORGANIZATION the irrevocable and unrestricted right to use and publish photographs or other images of me/my child, or in which I/my child may be included, in any print, electronic, digital or other media; and to alter the same without restriction. I further acknowledge that my participation is voluntary and that I will not receive financial compensation of any type associated with the taking or publication of these images. I irrevocably assign such images’ rights and uses to ORGANIZATION into perpetuity. I hereby release ORGANIZATION and its legal representatives and assigns from all claims and liabilities relating to said images.
    • Get the name of the person, the name of the parent/guardian, the address, the signature, and the date.
    • Optional: Offer a place for them to give restrictions on the use of the images. Thank them for signing.
  • Have a staff member keep a file folder (physical or electronic) with copies of all release forms. Ideally, have a note placed in the database on each person's record that has signed a release. Otherwise you'll need to be scrupulous about alphabetizing the giant file folder.
  • If you have anyone ask you NOT to publish images, create a method for keeping a list of such requests and sharing it with all the people who update your website and create print publications.
  • Include a release form with any forms you already have people filling out. For example, permission slips for field trips, registration for special programs, staff contracts.
  • If you are videotaping your church service or other gathering, periodically put a notice in the bulletin. I suggest: "This service is videotaped and displayed on the internet and burned on DVDs for limited distribution. Questions? Please contact the church office." Click for a longer sample.
  • Start going through the images that are prominent on your website or that you plan to use for a new design. Get the identifiable people to sign releases.

What about Facebook and Photo Galleries?

Ah, the sticky bit. The stuff above is not too difficult to put in place. What if you have photo galleries on your site or on Facebook or SmugMug or Flickr, especially if visitors can upload new photos and comment on photos? It would be a major undertaking if not impossible to get releases for all of the images and you can't control whether names or other information get attached.

  • Here's where you really need to pull out the legalese. Develop a privacy policy and terms and conditions for your site. Google "terms generator" to find online samples.
  • Specifically, you need legal language to put the responsibility on your users to get permissions for the images they upload. Here's a great example where Virginia Commonwealth University is asking users to upload photos to a Flickr group.
    • By submitting a photograph, you represent that you have been given the authority by each individual depicted in a photograph to bind such individuals to these release terms.
    • You acknowledge that ORGANIZATION may, at its sole discretion, publish or otherwise use any photograph submitted by you for future marketing purposes and in any publication or Web site without notice or permission.
    • By submitting a photograph, you (and any other individual depicted in a photograph) unconditionally and irrevocably waive all claims to compensation for use of the photograph, and/or any rights with respect to such use you may have under copyright law, the right to publicity, the right to privacy, the law of defamation, and any other common law or statutory claims under the laws of any jurisdiction.
  • If possible, put this language where users go to upload images.
  • If you have requests to NOT use someone's images, periodically check your photo galleries and cull any you find.
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