Can a documentary-maker distribute a film featuring me without my written consent?

by anonymous

Question: I recently took part in the shooting of a documentary. In fact, I was the main subject. Throughout the process the film-makers have shown a total lack of competence, and have failed to show me any footage that I'm happy with.

There have been many disagreements between us, and now I'm wondering what the legal ins-and-outs of the situation are, because I am afraid of being poorly represented. I wasn't asked to sign any release forms, so haven't given any written consent to the film-makers, is this an issue? Any help would be greatly appreciated.

Answer from Attorney Jaia Thomas:

The answer depends on whether or not the documentary is being used simply for informational purposes or rather for commercial purposes.

"Informational purposes" encompasses anything that informs, educates, or expresses an opinion protected by the First Amendment, whereas "Commercial purposes" refers to the context of a product being sold and/or endorsed.

If informational, a filmmaker may not need a release, or permission, unless the material is defamatory. However, if commercial, a filmmaker will need a release from everyone that is recognizably featured in the film. This is pursuant to the common law and statutory right known as, Right of Publicity.

Jaia ThomasAbout Jaia Thomas

The Law Office of Jaia Thomas counsels entertainment professionals and athletes in areas of intellectual property, corporate transactions and new media. Jaia Thomas is a regular contributor to and is available for private legal consultations.

Phone: 202.643.0689
Twitter: @jaiathomaslaw

You may want to grab a copy of Jaia Thomas' new book: The Law Student's Guide to Pursuing a Career in Entertainment Law

This content is not intended to be used as a substitute for specific legal advice. No recipient of this content should act or refrain from acting on the basis of content without seeking appropriate legal advice or other professional counseling.

Got a follow-up question or comment about this legal question?

Comments for Can a documentary-maker distribute a film featuring me without my written consent?

Click here to add your own comments

Aug 24, 2013
consent form
by: Desktop Documentaries

Hi Carl, you can find a sample consent release form here:

Dec 08, 2012
Need consent form
by: Carl Hill

How can I get a consent form?

Dec 07, 2012
EU law
by: Nicolas

I've interviewed someone who later decided to change his mind concerning his participation in the project. He hasn't signed a release form, but the footage clearly shows he agreed to be interviewed. there's no kind of defamation or manipulation of what he said in the edit.

This is an informative web doc project, independent, crowd funded and shot in an EU country.

Can I just ignore him and present my work online, or does he have a case? And if he sues, can I sue back?

Dec 02, 2012
release forms
by: Desktop Documentaries

Yes, it is best to get written consent from anyone you interview on camera. Even if the documentary is not for profit or broadcast, better safe than sorry. Sounds like a great project!

Learn more here: Copyright and Legal Issues for Documentary Filmmakers

Dec 02, 2012
Awareness Documentary
by: Carl Hill

As a victim of gun violence, I am in the process of making an awareness documentary, however, my intention is to use the procedes to set up and operate a community center in my community! Do I need to get a release form from everyone?

Click here to add your own comments

Join in and write your own page! It's easy to do. How? Simply click here to return to Copyright Questions.

7 Day Documentary Crash Course

Ready To Make Your Dream Documentary?

Sign up for our exclusive 7-day crash course and learn step-by-step how to make a documentary from idea to completed movie! 

Return Home