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 in 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 IStockPhoto.com, Dreamstime.com, 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.
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.
I use Canva for my images. At a cost of $1.00 per image I’m covered.
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.
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.
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!
Joe, I’ll send you an email on this.
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.
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.
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?
Most of her photographs were taken in public places.
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?
Does the sweatshirt have any trademark or copyrightable image on it?
I took an image of a man at a “leather” festival about 5 years ago. I did not know him. He was in the process of a sexual act of sorts I found interesting with a large crowd around him. I don’t know if he had the reasonable expectation of privacy or not, but I snapped a great pic of him. There is no chance whatsoever of finding him to get a release. Could the image be used in a magazine?
I doubt he had a reasonable expectation of privacy. But it would be up to the magazine whether they wanted to run it.
Never thought about it…Thank you Helen.Quite interesting info. I’ve seen around a lots of examples when an image (photo or a collage)goes around,published on different sites and pages.The initial source sometime is one of the largest sources such as Adobe Stock photos, but do all of those people who have it posted have paid the rights?
Natalie, Probably not. Many people assume that it’s okay to copy anything on the internet. That’s not the case. Someone may own the copyright in the copied image and material. People should be more concerned about violating someone’s else copyright, even if it’s by mistake.
I want to use an image of a famous industrialist on the cover of a book. The picture is in wide use due to his fame. His company has asked us not to use it, but has not made any claim to copyright, only that they are concerned that it suggests an endorsement. Would a note inside the cover indicating that neither the person or his company has endorsed the book be enough to solve that issue?
Randy, Using an image of a recognizable person on your cover raises a number of issues. It could imply endorsement, so go out of your way to say the book is not endorsed by or affiliated with the person or his businesses. There is no bullet-proof solution. You have to think of it from the perspective of a buyer or reader — would he assume there is an endorsement or affiliation.
Second, just because the company has not raised a copyright issue does not mean it goes away. For instance, if they hired an outside photographer to take the photo, they may not have the right to give you permission to use it since the photographer may still hold those rights. Just because an image is in wide use, you cannot assume it’s free to use.
I am writing a book and in a particular chapter where I mention him, I want to use the photo image of a scientist who died in 1934. The photo looks like it would have been taken in the 1920’s. I see it used a lot on the internet. How do I find out if there is a copyright?
Nancy, take a look at my Resources page and download How To Use Memorable Images without Paying a Fortune or a Lawyer. That will help
I am writing my first crime fiction (15,000= words at this stage) which mirrors to good extend real events that had happened here in Malaysia. My questions are:
1. I set a murder to have been carried out right in front of the 5-star KL Hilton, with sufficient details of the hotel (landscaping, furniture in the lobby, lounge bar, music, etc). Do I need a release from the hotel?
2. In my story, the fictional drug lord has a mistress named Amberine Chia, who is a fading super model. In Reality, there is a local super model Amber Chia who was super famous in the mid 1990’s to mid 2000’s. Am I damaging Amber’s reputation in anyway?
3. When my fictional hero attempted to even the score with a corrupt government minister who organized the murder of his sister, I mirrored the story along a real case where a senior political leader was implicated in a murder of a foreigner in 2004. The politician was later cleared of all charges. How safe am I if I just change all the names?
Khor, Since it sounds like you are in Malaysia, you would have to consult with someone familiar with Malaysian law. Sorry, but I don’t know anything about Malaysian law.
Helen I am writing a non-fiction children’s book and want to add drawn pictures of famous people some of whom are deceased. Everything is in a positive light and informative only. Do I need a release or permission for this?
Mia, Maybe. It depends who it is and how the image is used. It’s always safest to get permission. You may even get support from the famous people or their families.
Hi Helen. This article is really helpful.
I would like to use a news personality’s image for a one off commercial venture. The image of the personality will not be used in a derogatory manner. I intend to use an image of him from Google Images. Not a photograph but a screenshot from his news program. Almost like a copy from a copy… Will I have to get permission first?
Yes. It does not matter if you can find the image from a internet search. Someone probably owns the copyright. And the news personality has the right to control all commercial uses of his image. Get permission.
Hi, I am writing my first book ever at age 66 on my life.I want to put my mom, great uncle,and aunt’s picture in book. All have passed away,but my aunt still has children that are alive. I hesitate on putting any pictures of my children and grandchildren due to possible lawsuits. Also I am not using their real names. Any suggestions? I need to cover my bases,also I am going to order your book. Thank you so much, Linda
Linda, you could ask for permission from anyone living. That would be the safest route.
Hi Helen, if I photographed random people in say…hospital, office, mall, street etc, and superimposed my own face (for example), would those images be safe for stock or commercial use?
Thanks very much for your time and expertise!
Scott, It depends whether the original person is still recognizable. And since your intended use is commercial, it would be safer to get permission to use images of other people.
How can someone protect a commercial idea for a brand? Do you have any suggestions for being able to protect storyboard and tagline and the concept and idea itself for presentation purposes? I have a great idea and concept but wanted to get your opinion on this situation? Thank you.
Mikaeli, Ideas are tough to protect. If you feel your ideas are valuable, then consult with an intellectual property attorney about measures you can take. There is no one-size-fits-all answer.
Hi Helen, I am very interested in pitching a wonderful idea and concept to a big Brand for a commercial. I am also wanting to possibly use some images of people who are known or historical known in a storyboard. How do I protect my idea and concept in order to pitch to brand? Can I use pictures of the living or past if what they have made history and its a fact? Do I need to just present a NDA to Brand and for contract can I add in some specifics as for me receiving credit for original idea and concept of commercial as well as, if it is picked up I ask for to be paid when it runs much like actor receives in residuals besides their pay when they act or voice a commercial. Paid for commercial spot and receive residual pay? Thank you
Hello. I have a lot of pictures I took and some I inherited. I decided to make a photo booklet and sell it as a fundraiser. The number of people is thousands and thousands. Do I need permission to use their pictures in a booklet. Like a school yearbook.
I have some wedding photos and I took them but bride doesn’t want them on social media, but she didn’t pay for them.
Please give me your best advise
PMD, Your question is too broad to give a meaningful answer, but here’s a start. If you took the images, you own the copyright. So copyright is not an issue. So the question is whether using them in a book that is sold as a fundraiser considered a commercial purpose. And does it matter if each person is one of thousands? You should not use images of recognizable people for commercial purposes without consent, even if you own the copyright. T
What about using a model release for one particular use, e.g., use in a specific book, rather than as the broad all inclusive use.
Example: “I ______ give my permission to ____ for use in the book “The Photo Project” 100 copies of this book will be published in hardcopy and as an e-book and provided as gifts to supporters of the project.”
That works. You might want to it broader to cover editing of the image and using it on your website and for promotional purposes.
I’ve learned a few things today by reading your article, thank you. However, I’m still having trouble finding a answer to my question. I’m writing a book about my past online Dating experiences. I thought it might add value to the book by adding pictures of those and myself in the book. You mentioned to NOT use pictures of recognizable people. But what about average folks? May I use pictures I take of these individuals or pictures they send to me? No matter if it was taken in public or not? Lastly, what about pictures of this person and myself shot together? This book is a non-fiction book and the stories are real life true stories. So I was just wondering if you can help me solve this mystery for me please? I live in Texas. These pictures are not obscene or inappropriate by any means. Some pictures I am also in the picture. Some images I took with my phone and other images were taken with their phone and sent to me via text or email. Any advice or direction would be much appreciated.
If you took the picture, and the other person did not have a sense of privacy when the picture was taken, then generally you may use it as part of your book, but don’t use the image on your cover or for advertising pruposes without getting permission from any recognizable person in the image. If someone else took the picture, then you don’t own the copyright in that photo. IN that case, it’s safest to get permission to use it.
I’ve been browsing through Google images, through all the websites… …, and I’ve found some nice pictures of someone, who shares her pictures on Instagram, participates in other social medias, in public.
I’d like to use her picture(s) on other social media platform (Steam), but I have no contact info to ask for her permission.
I don’t care about money, I’d use it just as a design.
I also don’t have a problem with sharing the URL, where I’ve found the image, adding, that I don’t own the picture, etc… … to it.
The thing is, there is surely a copyright, but will it be OK to use her image then? I mean, the more viewers she’ll have, the more money she’ll get.
So, even without asking, we’ll both be happy.
What should I do?
– Should I ask for the permission?
– If I wouldn’t ask for the permission, could something bad happen to me (like, to pay X money to her) for using her picture(s) without permission(s)?
I am about to use only one picture.
Thank you for your time.
I’d like to let you know, that I really appreciate your answer.
It’s always best to get permission. On my Resources page, there’s a download that may help you locate the photographer and ask permission.
I am writing a sports book, and would like to include some team photos. I am in them along with children who participated on the teams. They are typical group photos. Do I need permission from each kid or parent to include them in the book?
Only if you are using the photo as a key piece of advertising or on the book cover. Otherwise, since there was no expectation of privacy in a staged, group shot, you don’t need permission.
I am opening a restaurant. Can I use hang family photos that have siblings or other people in them without violating any laws?
I hired a guy to pose nude for me. I have emails to substantiate that he was hired. Initially, I hired him as “practice” but since then, I have decided to put together a coffee table book of male artistic nudes. Can I use these photos and add them to my book?
Thierry, It depends on what kind of release you obtained from the model. You could have a problem if he agreed to pose for you only and did not agree that you could publish those photos. It would be better to get a release from the model.
I collect photos that I find at garage and estate sales of people, places and things. I post them to social media with with made up captions and have thought about putting them together in a book as my following grows. Would it be legal to sell such a thing? I’m not really looking to make a profit, just want to cover my costs to produce. Pictures range from the 1920’s to the 1980’s and are typically vernacular amateur snapshots. Examples on Instagram @myfoundphotos
Adam, You’d have to consider the copyright issues for each image. It doesn’t make much difference it you are not expecting to make a profit.
When you buy a photo, you are buying the physical copy of the photo, not the copyright or the right to publish it.
Thanks for considering all the situations in this feed. I have a question about using a photo in artwork. I took a picture of someone sleeping on a bench in public. I used that image in a painting. Even if the painting is very realistic I would think selling that painting would be ok because I own the photo and the person was on a busy street. The buildings in the background might be recognizable because I want it to be clear that the subject of the painting is “homeless young man sleeps with dog in New Orleans” I did slip $5 into the guy’s backpack just to anonymously thank him for “posing” but that’s neither here nor there. There are a lot of “regulars” among the homeless in the French Quarter so this guy could be distinguished by his dog and his hair, etc. Up to this point, it’s all about the art… until I sell it or use it for promotion.
1. If I sell the painting or donate it and someone recognized him, is there any potential for a legitimate claim?
2. What if I sell the photo to a publisher? Same question.
3. What if I promote my paintings using the photos that I took?
Denise, If you took the photo in a public place and use it as art, such as a painting or art print, then there is little risk for a claim. It might be different if you used the photo for purely commercial reasons such as as advertisement for shampoo or cleaning product.
Hi helen, what abaout the superimposed images for example a face with different (other person) eyes, nose and lips. Can it be use in commercial.
If the person in the image is recognizable, then you’ll need permission to use the image in an advertisement. Whenever the use is for advertising or promotion, it’s best to get permission.
Thanks for addressing this subject. I take candid photographs of people in public places. I know that using the images to promote a product/politician/cause is commercial use. But if I exhibit and sell prints of the images in art galleries or art books as art, in which case the images ARE the product, is that considered commercial use subject to the same restrictions?
Second, what is the standard for “recognizable?” If only the person himself would recognize his image in the photo, but no one else, would legal restrictions apply? If the face is not shown, can clothing, tattoos or scars make someone “recognizable?”
Generally, selling the photograph as art is not considered commercial; using it as part of an advertisement is. And in this case, the standard is recognizable to the person themselves. If they will recognize themselves, try to get a release.
Not sure I’d call that look plucky … sultry maybe, but not plucky.
Is a person by law able to take an old school picture of a 14 year old child and have that childs picture imposed in a family portrait if that child is not biologically yours? Do you need the consent of the parent and/or photographer? What if the child was deceased and the surviving parent was not asked or has not given parental consent to use this childs photo?
Sharon, It depends on how you plan to use the altered image. Is it just for personal use or are you going to publish it in some way? Will you used the altered image for advertising purposes? If your use will be for anything that involves publishing or advertising, then you need to consider the copyright owned by the photographer as well as the privacy rights of the child. You are throwing out too many hypothetical scenarios for me to provide a single answer.
I am writing a humorous memoir. I have changed names in any funny story that might still embarrass someone. I’ve chosen to keep family names as they add so much to the story (Ruby Jewel, Ricky Dale, etc.). All last names have been omitted but small town stories will make it easy to identify the person in the story. I have also used photos that I have taken or that I have permission to use (wedding photos) from the photographer. These photos appear inside the book only and NONE appear on the cover. Editing is done but now I’m getting nervous. There is not a thing that is insulting. Anything really embarrassing has fictional names. Do you see any issue with continuing on to publication?
Kristen, See this post for more info. https://helensedwick.com/how-to-use-real-people-in-your-writing/
I am writing a book about our school’s process of change. I am a teacher and hope to use pictures of school events where you can see groups of students but there is no identifying information. Do I need parents’ permission? I am thinking I only need my principal’s permission? Am I right?
Sandra, If you were not a teacher at the school, and the events were public and the students had no reasonable expectation of privacy, and your use not for advertising and promotion, you should be fine. But because you are a teacher at the school and they may have policies about such things, it would be safer to get the school’s permission.
I had just recently broke up from a very unsafe and poisonous relationship. Really the man can’t be trusted. Can I blackout his eyes in a photo with a comment and not be in trouble from it?
I am assuming you mean on social media. Yes, I would say that’s an opinion and protected speech
I live in the state of Utah.
Thanks for taking the time to answer so many specific questions. I’m still unclear on what makes something commercial/promotional. I work for an independent retailer that doubles as a unofficial community space and institution of our city. I take many photos at public events that I intend to use on content pages of our website. Sometimes this is a posed shot and sometimes it’s just people attending an event.
My understanding is that a blog article or a informative non-product page is not promotional. It is free content. Or is everything on our site considered commercial use because at the end of the day, we are a for-profit entity? Thanks!
Commercial and promotion is usually narrowly construed to mean an advertisement or packaging. Or use in a way that implies an endorsement. Since I don’t know enough about the context, I can’t give a definitive answer for your situation. You would need to consult an attorney to apply the law to your particular situation.
I’m writing a memoir about my wife’s surgery to remove Pulmonary Embolisms (PTE surgery) While we were at the University of California San Diego, I met a nun from our hometown in Michigan and she had a photo of herself with Mother Theresa, and a priest I also know was standing next to Mother Theresa, too. That photo was taken about 1979 by a friend of the nun. Both the priest and the nun have given me permission to use this photo in my book. Mother Theresa has been dead for several years. Do I need permission from someone associated with Mother Theresa to use this photo in my book? I intend to publish it online at Apple Books. Thank you.
Joseph, One question is who took the photo? The photographer could have a copyright interest. Generally, if you use a photo as an integral part of a larger narrative, such as a memoir, it could be considered fair use, but there is no guarantee. But I certainly would not use it on your cover. That’s too close to advertising.
I have taken a lot of photos in public places like outside markets ect.. These all have people in them and some of the subject and some have minors in them. I was approved by someone who is a designer that is looking for images like what i have taken to hang as art in a local bank. Can i sell them prints of these images if they are only going to be used art to decorate the inside? thanks
there is a typo not approve by someone but approached by someone. Thanks
I have a magazine and I want to use a rappers face on the cover. I personally captured the image from a concert I attended would that be okay? If I make the issue free to the public would it be okay to use? The article would highlight his accomplishments.
Kourtney, There is some risk in using the rapper’s face on the cover without his permission because you are using it to draw attention to and sell your magazine. Since you are including an article about the rapper, your use is likely to be considered journalism and fair use, but there is still some risk.
I have a small studio where we have kids and parents celebrate their birthdays and creating art. I also do sip and paint events.
I take a lot of pictures of children and parents in the studio. I understand I need a release if I want to use those photos on stock photography sites. My question is why anyone would sign a release? If I sell photo I can earn some money, not them. What would be incentives for someone to sign a release of his photo to be used commercially?
Eugene, People sign these releases routinely without really reading them. Make sure people understand what they are signing before you rely on the release.
Thank you for your knowledgable reply. I certainly never even considered using that photo on the cover. I’ll look more into the fair use idea, probably with some type of publishing lawyer. Again, thank you for your suggestions.
thanks for the publication. quite insightful.
Will i in any way breach the privacy right of street children when i take their videos and pictures as well as make publications, writings with those videos, pictures on the internet with the intent to exposing the vices of child labour and trafficking and other vices against children and please if that will be a breach of their right, how do i protect myself and organization from any possible law suits.
Please you can kindly send your response to my email.
Helen I want to publish a book of photos of homeless people . B/w beautiful photos of beautiful people. It would be 99% photos with captions Or titles for each photo that are positive. Do I only need the permission of the individual on the cover of the book?
What is the test for commercial use when the images in a book are being used to sell a product – the book. One could argue that the profit made from the sale of the book is commercial use even if the content is considered artistic and protected under “freedom of expression.” If all the photographs in the book are candid street photographs of Amish people, a group known to deliberately avoid contact with the secular world, would their reasonable expectation of privacy trump the “public space” exception. Most publishing contracts require an indemnify clause placing the burden on the author should a lawsuit arise. All publishers publish for profit, so isn’t it feasible that if an Amish person discovers his/ her portrait in a book, whether they are the main subject or part of a group photo, he/she could sue on the grounds that the book netted the publisher an enormous profit and therefore their likeness was used for commercial gain. Even though their likeness would be such a small contribution to the overall intent of the artist’s expression, the fact remains that their likeness is supporting the sale of the book. I would imagine it would get even more complicated if that likeness were being used as the cover photo. Street photography has had a long tradition in the museum and book space, but now it seems that frivolous lawsuits are popping up everywhere. Is a publisher/photographer exempt from the “commercial usage” test when candid street photos are published in a book for sale? Indemnify clauses seem to have become the standard in publishing contracts and asks the author to warrant that the material is neither libelous or obscene which makes no sense as the publisher is clearly endorsing the work if he/she chooses to publish it. Yet by agreeing to this clause, all liability falls squarely on the author’s shoulder. It seems that publishing street photos these days isn’t even worth the risk, if the “ commercial use” loophole can be exploited even in the book space. Your thoughts?
Melissa, Commercial use means using the image purely as an advertisement or as a product, such as using it on t-shirts, mugs, etc. Generally, using a photo taken in a public place as part of a larger expressive work, such as a non-fiction book, a coffee table book of photos, etc, is not considered commercial.
Good question about the Amish. I don’t know whether that has ever been litigated.
Regarding the indemnity clauses, if you get to the point of negotiating a publishing contract, talk though that with the publisher. Try to get them to exclude the photos from the indemnity. Those provisions can be negotiated. After all, they hope to make money from the sales of your book and should take on some of the risk,
Thank you for this information. I am working on a book where one page talks about people of my background being successful all over the world. It’s a general statement without naming any name. For the illustration, would I able to have some specific well known public celebrities in self drawn abstract art or this would be a legal breach as well?
Aman, I can’t answer your question yes or no. It would depend on how you used the illustration and where the celebrity lives
Hi..I will be taking photos of different businesses in our city for use on their website promoting the businesses. If it is in a restaurant, people walking down the street or shopping in a store, do I or the city need to get those people in the photos consent before a photo is used? Thanks!
It would be safer to get their permission if you can since the images will be used for advertising purposes.
I am using some photos in a commercial ad for a newspaper (not editorial, but advertising the paper itself). I know that commercial use always requires a release from recognizable subjects, but what about unrecognizable ones?
In one photo, there is a person on a bike in the foreground, but they are completely in motion so they are mostly a blurry, vague shape with no identifiable facial features, tattoos, etc. You can’t see their face at all, and their clothes don’t have any logos. In a second picture, you can see the back of a person in the background. There are no logos on the clothes, you can only make out a t-shirt and sweatpants. You can’t see the face at all, only the back of the head. The only identifiable thing about the figure is a heavyset body type.
In cases like this, where no one could make out the identity, do you still need a release for commercial use?
Most likely not. There is always a risk that someone will step forward and claim you cannot use their image for commercial purposes even if they are not identifiable. You’ll have to decide whether you want to take that risk.
Hello Helen … how fortunate I found you! I’m writing a memoir about my relationship with two famous people. I want to use their images along with mine on the cover. I took one of the photo’s and I can get permission from the other photographer, The people in the images are both dead, Also I want to sell on my website the pictures I shot that are in the book. Both were famous models. There is an agency named after the other. This book is costing thousands of dollars to launch. Are any of the two things I mentioned above illegal in any way? I know from reading your posts above that there is always a chance their estate will come forward. Especially the one whose image I want to sell for profit. I may have to rethink this entire project.
Sondra, It’s not a question of whether your use of the images is legal or not, it’s a question of how much risk is involved. It sounds like you have addressed the copyright risk because you created one of the photos and are getting permission for the other. As to and publicity right claim by the famous people, the more your work relies on their fame, the more risk involved. However, if your book is a memoir with a story and content that goes beyond a pure exploitation piece, then there is less risk. You would need to have an experienced attorney take a look at at your manuscript to get a better understanding of the risks.
hi Helen, thanks for the pro advice!
I want to take ‘news’ photos of controversial world leaders (ie: Kim Jong Un, Vladimir Putin, et al) and photoshop the image of a character in my movie to appear as if they are friends. These images would briefly appear on screen to provide a humorous background on the character.
These photos were taken at public events and may have appeared in a news article originally. How should I proceed?
Daniel, The copyrights to those photos are owned by the news organization or the photographer. Or even Getty Images. Even though you are using them for a new purpose, you are running a risk that your use could be considered copyright infringement.
Can I use pictures of famous people in history (Martin Luther King Jr., Marilyn Monroe, or Beyonce) for educational purposes? For example, if I am selling a product that was inspired by one of the aforementioned people, can I send a card with their image and a little ‘history lesson’ as a small gift for the purchase of the product? Can I use photos that were taken in public places and are on the internet?
Thanks for your help with this!
Tiffany, You still need to consider who owns the copyright to the image. Many images of celebrities are owned by Getty Images and other stock image companies. Go to the Resources page of my website and download How to Use Memorable Images. . . . It explains how to do a reverse image search to figure out who might own the image.
I am starting an Instagram page to highlight fashion, models, and trends. I am using pictures on Unsplash and cropping out individuals’ faces. I am not using these pictures for commercial use and have a disclaimer that I neither took the photos nor was the subject. Some of the photos are more revealing than others (i.e. swimwear shots).
Should I be worried about anything?
Thanks for your time!
Hello, Helen. Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge. I would like to use an image from unsplash,com, a site where photos are released for free for commercial use, of a city street. No people are identifiable as they are all under umbrellas, but businesses with signage is visible and readable. Do I need to get releases from the businesses even though it’s in a public space? Thanks again!
No. These signs are clearly visible on the street and there is no privacy issue.
Apologies, but I forgot to mention I want to use the image for a book cover.
Ah, then that adds a small twist. Your cover should not give a reasonable buyer the impression that you and your book are somehow associated with or endorsed by any of the businesses. That could be a trademark problem and an easy one to avoid.
I am consulting a young photographer on a public art portrait project where giant portraits (photos) of faces will be placed outside on a fence of a religious institution. The photographer does not have a release of any of those photographed and he does not know them. He shot them in a public location and asked if he could take their photos but did not state he would print or display them. They would be recognizable (very large facial portraits).
Is a release needed, particularly since this is a religious building?
thank you SO much!
Majorca, It depends on WHY they are being displayed. Is this an art installation or is it to promote the religious institution?
I have been sifting through the Internet trying to track down any rules that may help a friend of mine. This friend is a model/actor who is constantly dealing with whay are called “catfish” social media accounts. These accounts use images of him, taken from different shoots/scenes and even sometimes use photos taken from his everyday life that HE posts to say Instagram. On a few occasions, people have created large fb profiles and often are supporting political/religious views that he doesn’t. Seeing as online impersonation laws are not super strict, i was wondering about the rules around the actual usage of the images. Do people have a right to use other people’s /modelling company’s/ screen shots of someone on a fake account? Cheers
Use of another person’s image to create a false social media account is legally suspect in so many ways. It infringes the copyright of the owner of the image (the photographer) as well as the publicity and privacy rights of the person being impersonated. Unfortunately, most of these scammers are overseas. The only thing to do is keep notifying the social media companies to take down the images and profiles.
Helen, I am writing a non-fiction book of being swindled out of a lot of money, personal and business and now literally homeless from successful. Can I put pix of swindlers on the cover? My pix on cover too. They are recognizable. But, it’s my story. ?
Bernie, Write the book, but before you publish the manuscript have it reviewed by an attorney familiar with defamation law. At that time, your attorney will give you advice on how risky it would be to include the photo on your cover.
I was on a tour in Italy when we encountered a model being photographed in a wedding dress. I took some stunning photos but had not planned on using them for anything other than my own enjoyment. Now, however, I am writing a novel and would love to use one as the cover photo. Will I need to track down the model to get permission? What if the photo shoot was being done for a magazine. Would I need to get the magazine’s permission to use the photo?
Theresa, Sorry to say, but it would be safer, legally speaking, to get the model’s permission. I don’t know the law regarding the right of publicity in Italy, but I suspect they are more protective of the subject than US law. There is no First Amendment in Italy. I don’t see that you need the magazine’s permission.
You may have answered this, but can i use a famous persons name on a t shirt? Like Babe Ruth, or Wyatt Earp?
Thsnk you for great information,
Jeff, It depends. The issue is whether that person’s right of publicity survived their death and for how long. It depends on where they lived and died. The longer someone has been gone, the less risky. For someone who died in the last 20 years or who is still alive, you should consult with an attorney.
Hello, I’m creating material to be used for branding and content for a product’s website. There is an image of a famous person who is now deceased for over 49 years. I know some copyright law states 75 years for use in the public domain. What are the guidelines for commercial use? The product is also partially named after this individual. Thank you!
AR, In some states, the right of publicity survives for 75, even 100 years. This is separate from the copyright in the image itself. You should consult with an attorney to get a sense of how much risk is involved for your particular plans.
A son (45 yrs old) went into his mother’s house and physically obtained an old photograph (that belonged to her), of her deceased father ( his grandfather). The mother was elderly and not aware that he had obtained this old picture of her dad from her belongings. Son is now using the photo as labels on his beer cans/bottle at his brewery Selling beer. Does my mother have any rights to royalties?
Your mother may be entitled to some compensation, but it could involve a legal battle among family members, something she may not want to deal with at her age (or at any age). You should consult with a local, business litigation attorney to see if he or she thinks the fight makes any sense economically.
HI. Thank you for your article. I am working on a history book for a non-profit organization. I got permission from a government website to use its photos which include historical scenes as well as current photos. Am I allowed to use identifiable photos from that site of people taken in a clearly public place. I don’t know if the book is considered a commercial endeavor since no one is making money off of it. It’s actually a money loser for the author. He simply wants to educate the public. Thank you
I am assuming your book contains a lot of content other than these photos. In that context, selling the book would not make it “commercial.” Putting the photos on t-shirts, mugs, etc., that would be considered commercial because there is no other expressive content and the photos are being used only to sell merchandise.
I manage a local youth hockey website and would love to post pics of our kids on the ice having fun. What’s the call on posting photos of our kids clearly taken in a public ice facility? Do we have to be concerned about parental consent? What if only they can tell an image in a photo is their kid? Is there a commercial consideration by someone claiming that we’re trying to “sell” our organization by posting these photos of kids having a great time?
David, Although it’s not legally required if the images were taken in a public place, it’s always best to get a release from a parent. I suspect the parents already sign a liability release when they sign up their kids for hockey. Add the consent to that release.
The term commercial is very limited. It really means advertisements or merchandise. If you website is informative, etc., and the images are only incidental, that’s probably not a problem.
Hi Helen. Thanks for this informative write up. I’m an aspiring fashion designer. I intended doing a range of clothes then draw famous people faces and ask my model to wear those faces for photos. And ofcourse wear my clothes. I suspect I’m not safe taking this route!!??? I’ve seen artists sketch famous people to promote their portfolios. I’ve never heard that any fell Into trouble. Quite often famous people go on to accept the drawings. How do the artists get away with it ?
Hi Helen. Thabani designer here. The faces if famous people that I’m sketching on hardboard will be worn on the face. I am not printing them on my clothes. I call them face placards. Im sure this kida promotes my profile, but Will it be seen as commercial. The idea is “these are great people and I wish to one day actually dress them.”
Hi, My daughter is publishing a children’s fictional book based on a story about a walrus. I took a photo of the real walrus being fed by an employee at the aquarium. The photo is of the woman’s back giving a bottle to the walrus. Can she use this photo in her book without obtaining permission from the woman I photographed? Thank you for your help. (The book is going to be sold to raise money for a non-profit organization that builds libraries in underserved communities.)
The image of the back on an employee should not be a problem. However, if you took the photo at an aquarium, you should check with them on their policies on using photos taken at their location. The fine print of your ticket may prohibit the publication of those photos unless you get their consent.
Hello Helen, and thank you very much for the useful info. I too have s as special situation. I myself am a photographer and have decided to publish a book showcasing iconic images I have shot and commentary on the setup and how the image came to be. Some of the work is in that area of “glamour” and heavy on sexual depiction such as former Playboy magazines. Will I need to gather releases/approvals from everyone that has an image I’d like to use? And two of them are deceased, how do I handle that? Thank you, if there is a way to make a contribution to your page, I’d be interested.
Blayze, If I understand your question, these are photographs you took, but then licensed or sold them to magazines or other clients. IN that case, you need to consider what kind of agreement you had with the magazine or client. Did you transfer full ownership of the image or a license? What kind of rights do you still hold in the image? You don’t want to violate your contractual obligations. Regarding releases, it’s always preferable to get them, especially for any image used on your cover or for any that may be embarrassing for recognizable person.
I get that everyone now is just on the web and so much is about posting in blogs and such. However, in terms of self publishing and using images in a book: What if the images are over 30 years old? At a public event (maybe a school or kids watching a performance)? To illustrate a “how to” but the book is being produced for profit. To sell. A good example: The author is writing about the process of speaking in public and has a photo from 2000 of kids watching him perform at a school. Can we assume the parents gave permission for the photo? If so, can the photo attribution be “by permission of Acme Elementary Anytime, US?” Another example: What if there are pictures of people in a class learning a technique? If the photo was taken for the author, let’s say by his wife, can he say “Photo from personal archives?” They are definitely recognizable. I’m in a quandary. I assume the answer is no. 🙂
Regarding privacy, you need to ask yourself two questions: did the people in the photo have an expectation of privacy when the photo was taken, and are you using the photo for commercial purposes. Commercial means as an advertisement or implied endorsement. If you are using the photo inside your book to illustrate or otherwise add to the content of the book, that is not considered commercial. A book is considered expressive content even if you sell it. If the photos are old, then there is less of a privacy risk because the people in the photo are less recognizable. If you are using photos create by others, you also need to consider copyright risk — do you need permission to use the photo.
In your answer to David Cooley, September 23, I believe that is close to something I am asking about. But for a book to be self published and sold, not online. Would the same thing pertain? Or, being a book, a different animal? There are group shot photos, photos one on one with people, for a “how to” book. And photos of the author that were taken at press events.
Thank you for this great post and all the informative comments. I will purchase your book . . . I just ORDERED your book (2nd edition), but am hoping you have the time and inclination to answer this question.
An artist friend is creating renderings of images of 6 or 7 famous women activists, educators, economists, and politicians for the cover of a book I am working on about empowering women and girls. All the women are quoted somewhere in the book. They will be recognizable, but the art is original and is not photo-like at all. Only head and shoulders.
As they are public figures, they do not have reasonable expectation of privacy. But I’m not confident about the “commercial” criterion.
You say putting a photo on the cover of a book implies endorsement, and is therefore commercial. Since all these women publicly endorse the idea of “empowering women and girls,” do you think that would be a problem.
Should I be thinking of anything else?
Thank you, in anticipation,
Hi, Helen. I sent you a long query but after talking with my collaborator I realize that my issue is, do I need permission to use an altered photo of a famous person on the cover of a book I am working on. We will use stock photos, or photos from the Library of Congress, so it seems obvious that we need to reach out to those entities and obtain a 2nd permission to use the photo, altered, on the cover.
You may or may not need permission to alter the image. It depends of the rights of each license. You would have to read the fine print.
Hi Helen. Thank you for your informative posts. I am planing to place Dr. Fauci life size cutout (bought from online vendor) in my company premises to promote social distancing. Would there be any image right or legal issues with it?
No legal issue if you are using it to encourage social distancing. Legal problems might arise if you made multiple copies of the cut-out and sold it yourself. But using it in the non-commercial way you describe is fine. In fact, Dr. Fauci would probably be delighted.
I purchased a picture from an artist over 25 years ago at a gala. It was one copy of a picture that he signed. I would like to use the picture on the front cover of a book. There is not another copy of the picture in existence. He passed over 20 years ago and the picture is not in his published catalog. His family has no idea that the picture exists. However, his signature is on the picture. Can I legally use the picture on the front cover of the book?
James, This is a tricky issue. Although you have the only copy of the image, you don’t have the right to publish it because the artist retained the copyright. That would have passed to his heirs upon his death. Legally speaking, you would need their permission.
Can I use a random picture of a random Instagram diva i saw on my timeline as book cover if I crop the face (the upper part of the picture) away?
You should get permission from the copyright owner of the photograph.
I am writing a book about grief and I want to include a pic of my family which includes my deceased son and his living child on the dedication page. Am I allowed to use my pic in the book without getting permission for the living child. His mother is estranged from us and we don’t know where she lives.
How old is the child?
I had a graphic designer create an animated image of Bob Marley and had a quote put across the image a work of art. It is also meant to make a public statement, can it be used as a design for a t-shirt and be protected under the first amendment for expression ?
Marcus, This is too loaded a question for me to answer over the internet. You need to consult with an attorney who can look at your specific proposal.
I saw some beautiful pictures online in a media profile. The author is not a photographer but took some really stuning pictures. I wonder if I covered or blurred some faces that appear on the pictures if I could post them too. Or if that would be ilegal even if it was posted publicly.
Stephanie, Someone owns the copyright in those images. Even if you blur out faces, you need to think about who OWNS those images and ask for permission to use them.
Hello, I do lots of street photography, and I also do concert photography. I’m usually not hired to photograph these shows. They’re usually free shows, and no one cares if you take pictures.
I would like to sell prints of these pictures, and maybe release a photo book. Am I allowed to use any of these? There’s no way I can track any of these people down to ask permission.
Avery, Were the shows ticketed? If so, you should be careful about using images of the performers since that might have been restricted by your ticket. As for everyone else, if the concerts were large events and the photos were taken in non-private areas, you should be able to use the photos.
I am considering starting to make calendars to sell. I work in the medical field and was thinking of using some of these images I obtain or co workers obtain. of course, not have any medical information on them at all. But, still not sure legally if this is possible to use. Or would i still need to obtain a written release for each image I would use.
Shellie, It depends on the image. Who took it? Ahat it shows? If they were taken as part of someone’s job, the photos might actually belong to the employer. I can’t give an answer without more details.
Hi if people have private photo of themselves taken with a dead singer that gave them permission to take the photo
Are they the copyright owner. Which mean if they give me the permission to use that photo on items to sell like coffee mugs. Is that ok. As there private photo.
Opal, Your questions are more complicated than you may think.
First, the copyright is owned by the person who took the photo, not the signer. You would need to get permission from the photographer to use the photo on coffee mugs, etc.
Second, the signer’s estate may be able to stop you from using the image on coffee mugs because that is considered a commercial use. That use is different from an “expressive” use such as being part of a book with more content than the photo alone. Using the image in a commercial manner could be considered a misappropriation of the right to publicity. The claim survives death in many states, so analyzing that legal risk would require some research in to laws of the states where the singer was living and the state where he or she died.
Sorry there is no easy answer here.
Hello Helen and thanks for writing such an informative blog on copyright. Hopefully, I’m not too late to the party and you are still answering questions.
I’m working on a novel where historical characters and their work are mentioned with a little twist to fit the fictional theme of the book. I used a disclaimer that addresses this on the copyright page. Should I be doing more?
I also would like to use photo images of the characters, along with symbols, or artwork. When I try to locate the copyright owner for the photos, for example, many websites show up. Can I use any one of these to obtain permission?
The largest source for obtaining images I’d like to use came from Wikimedia Commons and Wikipedia. Considering they claim the media images posted are free content, what are your thoughts concerning reusing them in a novel?
John, Many of the images on Wikimedia etc are in the public domain, and others are not. They are often tagged by Wiki. If you go to the Resource page of my website, you can download a document about getting permission to use photos. That will give you more ideas of the process.
If I have self published a non fiction book that is autobiographical in nature, do I need permission from my family to put old photos of them on the cover?
The first question to ask is who took the photo. If the photo was taken in the last 50 years, that person or their heirs might own the copyright in the photo. If you don’t know who took it, then it may be an orphan work. Do a little reading about orphan works so you can do your homework before you use it.
Generally, I recommend that people get permission to use photos of recognizable people on their cover since the cover will be used for advertising. Using inside the book is less risky.
Hi Helen. Thanks for this well informed article. I said to my wife that I would look into something for her so hopefully you can offer advise. She used to be a cheerleader and was representing her school at a public event. She found her photo online some while after, and it is being sold on at least 2 stock sites with the option of using it for marketing purposes.
I understand from this that the public location means that it is ok, but not that it is being sold to be used as a marketing campaign. Is there anything we can do please?
You are right that the image cannot be used for marketing and advertising even if it had been taken in a public place. You wife should contact the stock photo company and demand that the images be removed or she be paid compensation for a release.
My cousin is planning on writing a tell all book about a very famous deceased man and woman who have a living yet unknown adult child, whose identity has been hidden secretly for many years from the public. Can my cousin use photos of her from her untrue book or the sons photos from facebook?
Judy, I can’t give a yes or no answer. Since the information is not public, there are a number of factors to be considered. Here’s a link that discusses the factors. Your cousin should consult with an attorney regarding her specific project and its issues. https://helensedwick.com/how-to-use-real-people-in-your-writing/
Hi Helen! thanks for writing this enlightening blog on copyright & privacy and your efforts in responding to each question. However, I couldn’t find a suitable response for my question among them.
I need to use some public social media posts(IG,Twitter) in a survey for my academic research. All the posts are picked from public accounts only. The account names, usernames, profile pictures and captions will be hidden. Only the picture and the location will remain visible. Most of the pictures have identifiable faces of the post owners or other people around. The posts will only be shown in the survey, not in the research paper. It is for academic purposes only. Do you see any possible violation of rights here?
John, Content posted on public social media may still be subject to copyright protection. However, your proposed use does sound like fair use. But I can’t assure you it’s fair use. That would be up to a judge to determine for sure.
Hello, I will pay and get photos from a photo service such as Shutterstock, to put in an education textbook, to illustrate the text. 1. Can I use any photo from such a photo service INSIDE the book to illustrate text. 2. Could I also use a photo of a celebrity, at Cannes, for example? 3. I construe that any photo used on the COVER of the book would require more license or money. Correct? 4. Are there any restrictions to using any photo bought from, say, Shutterstok, INSIDE of an education textbook. Many thanks.
GB: When you “buy” an image from a stock image company, you are getting a license to use it in a limited manner. Different companies have different restrictions. You would have to look at the fine print or contact them to find out if your proposed use fits within their standard license.
I am writing a book about a sports team. There will be chapters about famous players/coaches/owners with their own publicly known stories. I want to use their photos inside the book in the area related to the chapter. The meaning of the usage should say “This is the guy…” No use on the book cover or anywhere else. I believe this should be ok.
However, sources for pictures of some of those people are not available for commercial use. Can I use photo taken in public places marked as All rights reserved or NonCommercial (Flickr), or photos downloaded from internet with unknown author?
Francis, There are two issues in using images of other people. One is the privacy of the person seen in the image. The second is the copyright of the owner of the image. Even if an image was taken in a public place, the person who took the image owns the copyright. All rights reserved or NonCommercial (Flickr) indicates that the owner is asserting the copyright and putting the world on notice of that claim. Short answer then is no, you should not use the images without permission.