How a Model Release Turned Her into a Poster Child for…Everything

How a Model Release Turned Her into a Poster Child for…Everything

While a university student, author Shubnum Khan signed a model release in exchange for professional portraits as a part of a project by photographer XX billed as “The 100 Faces Shoot.” Unbeknownst to her at the time, the photographer started licensing the images as stock photography, and Khan’s visage started to appear in advertisements around the world selling everything from McDonald’s hamburgers to hyper pigmentation cream to management course materials.

In a Twitter thread, Khan explained how a friend notified her that her face was being used to promote immigration in Canada, and how a reverse image search revealed how widespread the use of the image was.

In many locales, so-called “personality rights” allow individuals to control their “right of publicity” – a legal right that allows an individual to control how their likeness is used commercially. Without seeing the fine print of the model release she signed, it’s impossible to speculate whether all the licensed usages were, in fact, legal in all jurisdictions and for all uses. Releases often prohibit using a model’s likeness for controversial topics like cigarettes, adult content, etc without explicit permission from the model.

While Khan didn’t object to some usages (e.g. immigration), she was shocked at how the image was used in conjunction with fake testimonials.

According to Khan, the anonymous photographer has stopped licensing the image, but a reverse image search revealed how widespread the distribution was including royalty-free stock sites like Shutterstock, Bigstockphoto, Dreamstime, 123rf and more.

Shubnum Khan’s image was licensed on a variety of royalty-free stock photography sites

Khan has no plans to file a legal action against the photographer, but she does see the incident as a cautionary tale against “time for print” arrangements between photographers and non-professional models. “Don’t sign up for free photoshoots, read what you sign and also don’t believe most of the things you read on the internet.”


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This article was written by

Allen Murabayashi is the Chairman and co-founder of PhotoShelter.

There are 8 comments for this article
  1. Kyrani at 1:13 pm

    I hope she’s not blaming the photographer for this. If you’re not paying the photographer in cash or other compensation, and you opt for signing a model release, you are signing your rights away. End of story.

    • John at 7:21 pm

      I think you are a bit biased being a photographer. No, a Model Release does not automatically guarantee a photographer can license your image. In the overwhelming majority of cases, it is a release that indemnifies the photographer for using that image in the way the model understood it to be. So it is not END OF STORY. Signing a model release does not mean you are signing your rights away. How would you like your picture used for STD medications, alcohol, tobacco, porn, and god knows what else. Get a grip and have some empathy. The photographer is lucky he is NOT being sued because this person is a kind forgiving person. Others would not be so nice.

    • Erna at 9:12 pm

      Nowadays people take the right to photograph anybody in their vicinity. Wrong, Stop! Model release does not and should not mean that photo of you can now be exploited

  2. Pierre at 7:43 am

    I should mention models who get a free shoot with hi res images in exchange for a model release knowing full well it is for stock and then ask me to delete and stop licencing images .a few years later because they have a respectable job

  3. Edward Greenberg at 3:19 pm

    This incident demonstrates the cost of naivety and the willingness to sign documents which have not been read.

    Based on the material in the article the subject of the photograph has no case. Written consent is required for the use of any person’s image, portrait, photo or likeness in connection with trade or commercial use in the state of NY. The CA statute is substantially similar as are the laws in several other states.

    As an attorney, the easiest cases we bring are those on behalf of either professional models or laypeople whose image has been used in the proscribed categories without their WRITTEN consent.

  4. Charr Crail at 3:26 pm

    Models and people in general should always read what they are signing! In addition to that I’m very clear when having people sign the release—some of the things I say out loud right then and there include “this means I can do anything I want with the photos.” “If a company wants to pay me to use it I will say yes.” “I will show these pictures to everyone and anyone who wants to see them so don’t do anything during a shoot you’re not comfortable with.” Of course I also don’t shoot anything I’d be uncomfortable with either. I think it’s equally important for the photographer to be clear what the release means. In 30 plus years I’ve only had two people say no to signing a model release.

  5. Ryan G. at 3:42 pm

    Model releases should be updated to include uses so a model can check off each use and initialed by photographer and model and given a copy back to the model. In this case she would only check off for use in the photographers portfolio and promotional web site. All other uses would be crossed off.

  6. Dancing Walrus at 4:57 am

    It all depends on how watertight the model release form is in legalese terms. Most photographers use a template that lawyers can shred to bits. If the model signed a release form that said photographer can use image without further remuneration for advertising and in any territory or region of the world, then no case to answer. However, it still doesn’t prevent model from suing both photographer and publisher (notably latter but culpability would have to be proved for photographer) if the model is slandered or defamed (for example, she doesn’t have baggy eyes or bad teeth but image has been touched up to sell products, etc). Considering the photographer agreed to take down the model’s photo from his website (where he has every right to display his work but not use it to promote the website, for example, use it in a banner), it says to me the release form isn’t watertight, otherwise he would’ve stood by it.

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