A month or two ago I was having a discussion with Andrew about model releases and subjects of photographs having federal protection against the use of their likeness in a commercial context. Although I incorrectly insisted that model releases were federally required, technically I was correct about subjects having protection at a federal level.
It should be stated right up front that a model release is not required or mandated by any federal or state laws in the United States. However, as will be discussed thoroughly, individuals have a “right” to choose certain conditions under which someone may use a photo of them, and if those rights are violated, that person could bring a “civil” lawsuit against the photographer and/or others that may be culpable. What those conditions are is where this entire issue gets sticky and is the basis for many barroom brawls.
Even if someone uses a picture of someone else in a way that would require a model release, no one but the subject of the photo can do anything about it. There are exceptions to that, such as movie stars or other celebrities who are under contract with representation who would move lawyers swiftly in your direction, but the important point is: the government isn’t going to hunt you down if you use a photo of someone without their permission.
Sample Model Releases: