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Is it necessary to obtain a release from everyone whose face appears on camera?

Internet Filmmakers' FAQ

The short answer... yes.

Privacy laws vary from country to country, but in most developed countries you need to gain permission from a person to use their image in a media project of any kind if they are identifiable in the piece. If the person is considered to be a minor (usually those under 18 years of age) in the jurisdiction where you are shooting, you will normally need to have a parent or legal guardian sign consent on their behalf instead.

Legitimate news gathering organisations often have special exemptions from these rules as they are generally considered to be operating "in the public interest," but filmmakers (including documentary-makers) do not enjoy this exemption and must therefore get everyone who is recognisable in the film to sign a release form. Without the release, anyone who appears in your film may be able to sue you for using their image without permission, may prevent you from distributing your film, or may even demand a cut of the profits.

If you are shooting with actors or in a controlled environment, make sure you get releases signed at the outset. Leaving it until later on or after your shoot is a very bad idea - what if you lose contact with the actor or have a falling out? It's better to have the releases signed so at least you can use the footage.

If you are shooting on location, always carry some blank releases with you. It's best to try and avoid getting members of the public in your shots, but if it's unavoidable, it's worth trying to get them to sign a release (if you ask nicely, many people won't mind). If you can’t get a release, you'd better forget using that shot.

For documentaries (particularly involving crowds), releases can be a nightmare, but they are normally required none-the-less. Some ticketed live events may include a condition to agree to be filmed in a crowd as part of the terms of issue, but don't rely on this. You'll need to discuss access with the event organisers anyway, so you should also use this opportunity to find out more about the legal implications of filmming people in the crowd (something that should probably also be discussed with an entertainment lawyer).

Finally, the other reason why you should get a release for everyone who is identifiable in your film is that most distributors will require you to prove "chain of title" (i.e. that you own all of the intellectual property in the film). This includes rights which are created during the course of the production in areas such as performance or the images of people you use. In order to prove chain of title, you need to have a paper trail, and that means release forms. Without them, you may severely limit your distribution options as most commercial distributors will not take the risk of picking up films where chain of title isn't complete.

In summary, unless you are an accredited news gathering organisation, you must get a signed release form for anyone who is identifiable in your film.

Answer by Benjamin Craig  |  Last updated 03-Feb-2005


Older Comments

Ben Craig  |  28-Aug-2009
Dave, the main point of this piece is to remind filmmakers that they need to plan their work carefully when shooting in a public place. Getting a release signed may be counter to the spirit of documentary making, but in many places it is necessary none-the-less. Sure, shooting a crowd in New York is likely not a problem if it's a wide shot, but where people are featured or identifiable, it is possible they can take issue. Here in the UK, there is no presumed right to privacy if you're in a public place, so documentary-makers have it easier. However, in the US individuals have the right to protect their image, which is where the problems can come in. Sure, many people won't take issue with with it, but the fact the someone could is enough to justify getting a release. For example, in 1993 there was a case involving the famous photo, "Kiss by the Hotel de Ville", by Robert Doisneau, which shows two people kissing on the streets of Paris. A case was bought against the photographer by two people who claimed to be the couple in the photo on the basis that it was taken without their permission. Although it came to light during the case that Doisneau had actually staged the photo with models, the fact that it went to court in the first place makes the point.
Dave Davis  |  11-Aug-2009
We've all seen many documentaries showing busy New York City streets with throngs of people moving on the sidewalks. Did they all sign releases? Hardly. Many documentaries would never have been released if this were the case. Filming in a public place usually clears you from having to have releases from all those people. The advice to avoid including the general public in your shot is counter to the documentarian's obligation to document reality, and we're not talking about "reality tv" here... Of course if it is a private setting...a concert, a party, someone's home or office, that is different. But in a public setting we are generally free to film the public.