How to Use Images of Real People Without Violating Privacy and Publicity Rights

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Suppose you find the perfect image for your book cover on the internet—a plucky redhead with a perfect pout. Even better, the photo is available under a Creative Commons attribution-only license that permits commercial use. What a money saver!

But wait. Do you have a release from the plucky redhead? Do you need one?

Or you attend a writers’ conference and take photos of a famous author speaking at the podium. Later, you capture that same author when he is sloppy-faced and drunk at a large reception. Later still, you snap a photo of him punching a writing rival in the restroom. Can you post those images on Pinterest and Facebook without risking a lawsuit?

Writers should be nervous when incorporating images showing identifiable people in their blogs, books, or social media postings. Violating privacy and publicity rights is a potentially costly mistake.

But you don’t want to walk around with blank releases in your pocket. And what if the photos show hundreds of faces? Do you need releases from every recognizable person? Without releases, are you limited to posting photos of cute puppies and selfies?

Using Images with Identifiable People

The rules about using images with recognizable people come down to two considerations:

  • Did the person in the photo have a reasonable expectation of privacy?
  • How is the image being used?

You need to consider both. Passing one test is not enough.

Did the person has a reasonable expectation of privacy?

Generally, people do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy for anything they do in public. The exception is a performance or meeting where you are informed that taking photographs is prohibited. In those situations, you make an implied promise to honor the no-photo request as a condition to attending the performance or meeting.

If a photo was taken in a private setting, such as a home or office, you should assume you need permission before you post or publish any image showing identifiable people. Contact everyone recognizable in the photo and ask for a release. I provide a sample below.

So for the image of the redhead, look closely to see if the photo was taken in a public place? Since it is often impossible to know, I recommend against using any Creative Commons image showing recognizable faces unless it was obviously taken in a public place.

Regarding the famous author, you may assume the author had no expectation of privacy when speaking at the podium and getting drunk at the reception, since both were iprivacy1n public.

The punch in the restroom is less certain. Ask yourself whether the author had a reasonable expectation of privacy. Was it a public restroom at a convention center or a private bathroom at the host’s home? Was the author too drunk to understand his actions were in plain view? There is no right answer here; only factors to consider, including non-legal factors, such as your reputation in the writing community.

There is an exception if the image is newsworthy or addresses a matter of public interest (something decided by a court). In those cases, you may be able to post and publish the photo. Courts balance First Amendment issues against the rights of privacy. However, I would not do so without going over the specifics with an experienced attorney.

Obviously, don’t climb fences, peer through windows, hack computers or phones, or stalk people to get their photos. Courts are particularly punitive about intrusive measures.

And never venture into Revenge Porn; a jilted lover posting nude images of his (yes, it’s almost always his) former partner without permission. In some states and countries, Revenge Porn is a crime.

Is your use commercial?

Do not use an image of a recognizable person for advertising or promotional purposes ever, even if it was taken in a public setting, is available under a Creative Commons license, or is in the public domain, unless you have written permission. Using anyone’s image for commercial purposes violates that person’s right to publicity. You could be liable for damages, including punitive damages. In some states, these rights survive for up to 75 years after a person’s death.

The line between commercial and non-commercial is fuzzy. Using an image on a book cover, t-shirts or other merchandise is commercial, but posting it on a blog or social media site that is informative and editorial is probably not. Use common sense. How would you feel if you were in the photo?

To return to our hypothetical famous author, you may post an image of the two of you shaking hands or sharing a beer, but don’t say or imply that the author gave your book glowing reviews without written consent. I would not put those images on the back of your book without consent; that’s too closely related to selling a product.

As for the plucky redhead, contact the original photographer and ask whether a release was obtained or is possible. If you use the image on your book cover without a release, it could cost you plenty.

Will your use imply any advocacy or endorsement?

Even if the use is not commercial, do not use a person’s likeness to imply that the person advocates or supports a certain political, religious, charitable or other position without a clear, written release. Again, this violates privacy and publicity rights.

Does your use of the image create a false impression?

Consider the context in which you are using the image. If you are writing a post about violent street gangs on a particular street and use an image of a young man walking down that street, you could be implying the young man is part of a gang. Even if you do not say the young man is a gang member, you could be defaming him by portraying him in a “false light.”

Similarly, don’t insert yourself into photos.

An attorney had her license suspended for pasting herself into dozens of celebrity photos as part of promoting her entertainment law practice. What was she thinking?

How high is the M.E. factor?

As an attorney, I am often asked, “Can someone sue me?” Unfortunately, just about anyone may sue you, even if the suit is frivolous. My rule of thumb about litigation risk is the M.E. Factor: money multiplied by emotion. If a lot of money is involved, then a lawsuit is likely even if there is little emotion involved. On the other hand, if someone is angry, offended, or threatened, then they are likely to sue regardless of a small financial stake. If you get someone peeved enough, you may awake one morning to a process server banging on your door.

What about stock images?

If you license an image from one of the large stock image companies such as,, or Getty Images, then they generally guarantee they have obtained all necessary releases, but only if you are paying for a “royalty-free” license. An “editorial license” is more limited and does not permit commercial use. So always opt for “royalty-free” licenses.

Bottom line: Photographs taken in public settings are almost always fair game. You may post and publish them for any purposes other than commercial or promotional or in any way that implies a connection or endorsement. 

Here’s a sample Release you are free to use.

I hereby release and grant to ______________________ (your name) (Photographer), and his or her assigns, licensees, and legal representatives, the irrevocable right to use any photographs of me taken by the Photographer, in all forms and media, whether now existing or not yet created, and in all manners, including composite or distorted representations, for advertising, trade, promotional, political, charitable, education, or any other lawful purposes. I hereby waive any right to inspect or approve the finished versions, including written copy that may be created in connection therewith. I have read this RELEASE AND CONSENT and am fully familiar with its contents.


Contact information ___________________________________

Date ___________, 20____

(If applicable) I am the parent or guardian of the minor named above and have the legal authority to execute the above release. I approve the foregoing and waive any rights in the premises.


Contact information ___________________________________

Date ___________, 20____

An earlier version of this post appeared on Nina Amir’s Write Fiction Now! Blog.


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16 responses to “How to Use Images of Real People Without Violating Privacy and Publicity Rights”

  1. Helen, this is great advice and I’ve also shared it with my mailing list. My one big take-away is to make sure images clearly indicate they were taken in a public setting. I’m going to remember that when I take pictures myself. Thank you.

  2. I use Canva for my images. At a cost of $1.00 per image I’m covered.

  3. Ann says:

    Helen, I bought your book and am finding it a great resource. The subject of this post is the reason I ordered the book. What about publishing a photo of a deceased individual taken in a public place printed not on the cover of a book but in the photo section of a non-fiction book? Context is positive, not defamatory and would not be used in marketing or promotion. Do I need to get permission from the deceased person’s heirs, or am I ok since photo was taken in a public place? Of course this is a separate issue from a permission release from the photographer.

    • You proposed use sounds very safe. The person was in a public place where there is no expectation of privacy. Your use sounds related to the expressive content of your book. Your not using for commercial purposes. I say, go for it.

  4. Dave Atchison says:

    Great info. Is there any legal boundaries – prohibitions against a local politician who takes a selfie with people at a public conference and then uses those photos on his campaign Facebook page and also prominently featured on campaign flyers and direct mailer postcards?

    • Technically yes. You should not use recognizable faces for political promotion without consent. A news report might be fine, but not a flyer. That being said, I suspect most politicians just plow ahead and use the images by assuming people have consented, particularly if it is apparent the people knew they were being photographed with the politician or at an event.

  5. Joe Muscat says:

    This is really interesting – thank you. I am helping someone self-publish his memoirs. He worked with some very famous actors in the last century – most of them are sadly deceased – and he has pictures of him with them which he wants to include in his book. He himself is not famous. Some photos are clearly studio publicity shots – and I am negotiating clearance fees, from a very limited budget, with the relevant companies for these. Others are publicity head shots signed with personal messages which I’m assuming to be OK? The photos I’m now worried about are more informal shots where he has no idea who the photographer was, but reading through this I am now more worried that he might be sued by the estate of the deceased actors. There is nothing derogatory written or shown about the actors in his book – quite the opposite – but should I try to make contact with the estates anyway? Some of the shots are taken on set and others in public places. He’s an old man and the book is going to be of very limited public interest but I would hate to encourage action which might lead to him getting in trouble. The plan is to publish the book as a hardback and as an e-book. Any advice gratefully received!

  6. Annette says:

    Hi, Helen, can I trace a photo of someone in a book, outline one (no facial features, hair, etc. in the trace), black and white, and use the trace that I created commercially without infringing on the person’s copyright?

    I recently bought your book, Self -publisher’s Legal Handbook, which is extremely helpful. Thanks for writing it.

    • Annette, Yes, up to a point. If the outline is highly original and distinctive and your outline is clearly a copy with nothing new and original, you could run into trouble. But if the outline is fairly generic, such as a head with shoulders, then you should be fine.

  7. Emilie says:

    Hello,it’s a very informative post.
    But can I crop the faces of identifiable people from a CC0 photo, to put it on my blog?

    • Be careful how you use any identifiable face. If you use it for advertising or purely commercial purposes, you may be violating the person’s right to control the commercial use of their image.

  8. Edwin Roman says:

    Vivian Maier was an American street photographer, who passed away in 2009. During her lifetime, Maier’s photographs were unknown and unpublished; many of her negatives were never printed. After the negatives were discovered and published by collectors, Maier’s photographs have been exhibited around the world. Of course, there are recognizable people in the photographs, which have been published in several books. How did that work?

  9. Doreen parkins says:

    will I be in legal jeopardy if I posted a photo I took in a public place but totally cropped the head off the person and just used the generic printed sweatshirt they’re wearing with a comment that does not include the person’s name?

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