Documentary Release Rules

Written by Aveek

Topics: Legal

Disclaimer: The text below is intended to provide filmmakers with helpful information in their preparation towards the production of their film. Nothing below should be construed as constituting legal advice. It should not be used as a substitute for consulting with legal counsel and receiving advice based on the circumstances of a particular transaction.

In the United States and Canada, if you are shooting a documentary, in most instances, a personal release form is required. If you are shooting a documentary on the fly and don’t have the necessary release forms with you, it is possible to use a verbal release, on camera. It may not be perfect, but it’s proof enough that your intent was to secure a release. Most personal release forms that are widely available on the internet should be good enough.

When it comes to documentary filmmaker, one thing to note is that release forms are not necessary if you are involved in filming a newsworthy event. If you videotape President Obama or Stephen Harper (for those of you who don’t know who the Canadian Premiere is), a personal release form is not necessary if you wish to put your masterpiece up on Youtube.

Please note however that if you use a video shot by someone other than you, even if the video is of a public figure, you need permission from the person who did do the shooting before you can use the clip in your documentary.

If you find yourself in a situation where you require a release form but are unable to obtain the release because of your subject’s recalcitrance, then you still have the option of blurring the face in post. If you are able to make sure that your subject remains unidentifiable by voice or context, you should be fine.

A copy of a personal release form can be downloaded at the link below:
Documentary Release Form / Personal Release Form.

Disclaimer: As mentioned at the beginning of the post, nothing in this post should be construed as constituting legal advice. It should not be used as a substitute for consulting with legal counsel and receiving advice based on the circumstances of a particular transaction.

6 Comments For This Post I'd Love to Hear Yours!

  1. Shayne says:

    Are there rules if you’re filming a crowd at an event or if you are filming a sidewalk and people walk in front of the camera, would there be an exception for see scenarios?

    • Aveek says:

      If you are filming in a public space, such as a street, and you don’t have any tight shots of anybody in particular, and you don’t have anything that shows people in a bad light (someone spitting or littering), you should be okay. Second Units on films sets get public shots all the time and they don’t get releases from everyone.

      If you do have tight shots of the public you want to use, even if you are shooting in a public space, when you go to buy your E&O policy, you will see that it will require release forms for those shots. But in general, shooting ANYTHING visible from a public space is fine.

      This is obviously not legal advice, just my understanding.

  2. John Savarese says:

    Thanks for the info–but I’m a bit confused by your example of an Obama event. Did you mean a release from someone like Obama is not needed (obviously) or did you mean filming people at such an event did not require one?

    • Aveek says:

      1. You don’t need a release form from a public figure like Obama.
      2. You can only film people if they are in a public area, and not require a release form. So if you’re out on the street, it may be okay.

      But, then again, there are plenty of political documentaries where lots of people are filmed, and they are mostly on private property, like a stadium. I’m not sure how political events work, but from the number of documentaries I’ve seen, I’d bet it’s okay to film people at a political event without release forms. Don’t take my word for it, but I think you should be fine.

  3. Phillip says:

    I’m shooting a documentary about a Comic Book shop and the owner. Will a verbal consent on film be suitable if they are weary about signing a release form? Also do I need any type of release form for filming the Comic books and some of the pages?

    • Aveek says:

      Hey sorry for the late reply. To the best of my understanding, a verbal consent is okay if you get it videotaped. So when you start taping them ask them “hey is it okay if I film you?” so that you at least have something on record.

      But I’m no lawyer. But that’s what I would do.

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