Is email reply good enough for a clearance on photos taken from the Internet?

by Joan
(Northern California, US)

Question: I'm in the process of finishing up a documentary film, I am emailing requests for clearances for several photographs taken off of various websites. I thought I should attach our clearance form to the requests.

Usually people print and sign the form, but I'm afraid that might be too much to expect from a person off in the web.

Can they just type in their name and will that work as permission to use the images? Any suggestions on how to approach people online to get permission?

Desktop Documentaries Answer:

Just like anything in life, using good common sense will take you a long way.

If you plan to sell your documentary to a television broadcaster, they will require proof that you own or have permission to use every single item in your film -- from music to footage to photos. If you are producing a personal film that you don't plan to sell or post on the internet, a less formal agreement (ie e-mail) is probably okay especially if the photo is positive in nature.

The last thing you want is for someone to see their photo in a commercial film and try to sue you because you didn't get their permission. Or maybe they sent you an e-mail, but changed their mind. A signed statement of their approval is the best way to protect yourself.

So bottom line, if you're approaching people on the internet to get permission to use their photo, here's what you do:

Here's What To Do

Contact them directly with a short, friendly e-mail. Attach a copy of the photo you want to use and briefly explain how you plan to use the photo in your film and ask them if they are okay with that. (Do not include the contract yet).

Let them know you are on a tight budget and would greatly appreciate being able to use the photo "gratis" in exchange for a credit at the end of your film. See what they say. If they require a fee to use the photo, you will have to decide if their terms are acceptable or try to negotiate.

Once you come up with an agreement suitable to both of you, at that point, draft up a contract for them to sign. Then it's super clear to everyone what was agreed to. That way, even if it comes up ten years from now, you'll have the paperwork to prove the agreement.

One Caveat

If your documentary is controversial in nature or you're making some kind of commentary on society, you may be able to use the images without permission under Fair Use Laws. But this is a very narrow and tricky law.. make sure you fully understand it before using a photo or footage without permission.

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