Bystanders - Release Forms

Jan 8, 2006
West Hollywood, CA
What is the general "best practice" Re: use of video footage with bystanders appearing in it?

I've been advised that if you want to sell your footage commercially, it's really important to get anyone who appears or is heard in your footage to sign a release form saying they're OK with being in the footage. The problem is that all of the sample release forms I have seen seem rather onerous. I see news and storm-chaser footage all the time and I can't imagine that every one of the people I see in these videos has signed one of these release forms.

Given that there are a lot of very experienced chasers on this board, I think this is the best place to get some advice Re: best practices. Any advice would be appreciated. Thanks!
I'm not real sure about this but I would bet that there is no such law regarding permission by bystanders before you can sell footage.
It just wouldn't make sense to me to have to round every person up in the footage to have them sign a release before the footage can be sold.

As far as my footage, i wouldn't even try to get bystanders permission before I tried to sell it...especially if it was in a public place.
That's exactly how I feel. It just seems really impractical and unreasonable.

The people I have spoken with all work in entertainment in L.A.-- they are documentary filmmakers and so on. And I asked an entertainment attorney who said the same thing. They seem know what they're talking about-- but I didn't think this practice is followed by most storm chasers, and it seems like it would be very difficult.

More comments and inputs are greatly appreciated!
Take 911 for example. How many people did you see running from the towers, face in full view. I can see it now - "excuse me, you were in my video shot, would you mind signing this release form for me?â€￾ I would think that, perhaps, if it where not in a public gathering, say a few people, you might want to consider a release form but other than that I personally would not worry about it.

What about the entire major network’s morning shows. You see all of the bystanders peaking through the windows in the background not to mention when the commentators and hosts are taking the show outside onto the streets of NYC. I guess it would be possible for the networks to have the all of the bystanders sign a release form before they walk onto the outside set but I can’t quite see that. Anyone ever been on those morning shows?

The TV show COPS is also a great example. I am sure they have to have bystanders sign the release forms for legal purposes. I would assume that is why we see a lot of the witnesses with their face blurred out, but that could also be possible because of the witness’s protection.

Mr. Diel you know anything about this?

As far as news gathering, I don't believe there is a requirement. Mostly as there is really no way to gather all the information needed to get release forms done. After all, we see riots, home video, the stuff from Katrina, etc. and I really don't think people signed release forms.

Same thing with interviews. After having done several interviews, I've never had anyone sign a release. Now on larger "planned" productions, there may be some question and it's always better to get permission from the folks rather than risk a lawsuit later on.

However, for things like car accidents, and "News" there is no such requirement. That is indeed a commercial use of the footage as well. There have been dozens of documentaries filmed over Storm Chasing and Weather Disasters in general, here again, I really doubt that anyone went back to find the people affected and get them to sign a release form.

If it happens on a large scale and in the normally viewable public access, there is no requirement for privacy issues. Common courtesy would dictate whther or not you stop filming when asked by someone at the site. If you are on private property and filming something that you have no other access to, then there is a requirement to get permission and to stop when asked. There again, I've filmed several fire scenes where getting onto the property in question was the only way to get the shot. I've never been asked to stop filming.

I have been told to stop filming at car accidents though. Not by the LE folks, but by the people involved. There again, it happened in an area that is publicly accessable and there is no requirement for me to stop. What I usually would do though, to avoid what could be a confrontation, would be to stop filming in that particular area, move a few feet and start again. If LE asked me to stop, then I stop.

Ask yourself what the liability would be to you for filming what you are filming. Place yourself in that situation and think about how you would feel and that will determine more than anything else what you shoot and what you don't shoot. Your trying to tell a story and how accurately, or how you convey that story is up to you and your shooting.

David Drummond is another good one to ask this. He does some News Shooting. The fella from Breaking News Video can answer some of these better than I can as well.

The blank outs you see on Cops are usually not so much privacy issues, but where someone has specifically stated they don't want their mug on TV. Cops being a syndicated deal, also make arrangements with the PD they ride with. There may be some sort of thing going on there as part of the agreement for ride alongs. There is also the case of Minor Children and Witness Protection to a degree. Minor Children being specifically filmed usually requires parental consent. As part of an overall filming of an event, then no, the consent is not required.
Anything you can see from a public right-of-way is legally fair game for most anything aside from some scripted shoot like a production with actors.

Pretty much everything you will be shooting while chasing weather will fall under news and/or documentary stuff. The latter for most chasers.

When it comes to shooting damage and people involved, it really comes down to how you feel about it. I personally have found that 9 out of 10 people WANT to tell and show you what happened and don't mind you taking pictures or shooting video. My own personal technique is that I turn the camera on, but have it pointed down and ask them if they mind. I at least get their voice on camera saying yes or no that way.

I have no moral issues about shooting damage or the people involved in it. It happened, it was an event, and by shooting it, regardless of what happens with it, you documented the event. Some of the worst things I have shot, the people involved requested a copy for themselves.

I won't just shove a camera in someone's face without asking usually, and there have been a few times where I turned the cameras off, but overall, I like to capture as much of what happened as possible.

You might consider keeping a few releases along with you for anyone you happen to take along with you. Certain events cause me to now get a signed release from anyone that rides with me. You just never know what might happen.