By Cliff Ennico

“I’m a video photographer who, up until now, has specialized in shooting weddings, bar mitzvahs, and other ‘celebration’ type events.

A local high school recently contacted me about making a video of their school’s drama production each year. I frankly didn’t realize there was a market for that, so I contacted other area elementary, middle and high schools in my area. All of them told me they would love me to come in and videotape their school functions as long as I didn’t charge the schools anything for that service (in other words, I would charge the parents for copies of their child’s performance).

This sounds like a great opportunity for me, but my lawyer doesn’t like it for some reason. He’s not the kind to explain his reasoning, so I’m hoping you will help me understand the legalities of doing something like this.”

I’m not sure I would be as negative about this as your attorney, but he’s right that if you do this type of video work you need to be very, very careful as things can get very complicated in a hurry, legally speaking.

Before you shoot a video of anyone other than a professional actor or actress (and sometimes even then), you need to get a document – often called a “permission and release form” — by which he or she:

  • “Permits” you to make the video and edit their performance as you think necessary;
  • “Releases” you from any liability for the video shoot;
  • “Assigns” or “licenses” the right to use their likeness and voice, their copyright and other rights to you (if you plan to sell the video to people other than him or his parents); and
  • “Indemnifies” you from any legal liability that may result from the video shoot (unless of course it was your fault).

Because you are dealing with amateur actors and their parents, this form should be written in “plain English” and should be not more than one page long.

Since most of the student performers will be under the legal age of consent (21 in virtually all states, 18 in some), you will need to get the release forms signed by every single parent or legal guardian of every single student involved in the production (a teacher’s signature is not enough). In these days of ready divorce I would not trust a release signed by only one parent unless the release language specifically states that the individual signing the release has “full and legal authority” to grant it.

If you omit to get a release for even one of the students you are videotaping, or if a single parent or guardian refuses to sign your form, then you are faced with a stark choice: you can either edit that student out of the video (which will upset the integrity of the performance you are trying to document), or you cannot use the video for any purpose whatsoever.

Since most schools will be reluctant to give you the names and home addresses of each student involved in a production (after the Columbine and Newtown shootings you can understand why), you will be forced to ask parents to sign release forms as they show up for their child’s production and hope that all of them agree to sign. Some schools may be willing to have their teachers deliver the forms to the participating students so they can be signed beforehand and delivered by the student on performance night, but if even one student forgets to have the form signed in advance (would YOU trust a teenager to deliver an important message to their parents?), you have a “rights” problem that will compromise the video shoot.

Even if a parent or guardian signs the form, they may be reluctant to give you free reign over how the video is used. For any kind of competitive event (such as a basketball game, or a business plan competition), the school or coach may not want copies of the video to be delivered to the other team for fear of publicizing a game strategy or secret play.

Most parents will also want you to assure them that the video will present their child in the most favorable light possible. While we all love to watch videos of little kids saying silly things or making cute mistakes (remember Art Linklater’s television show “Kids Say the Darndest Things”?), there’s a growing concern in this age of social media that “blooper” tapes of students looking foolish, blowing their lines or acting in politically incorrect ways onstage can be posted online for worldwide comment and mockery (to say nothing of college admissions people who may stumble upon them in future years).

In promoting your services, you will need to promise each school they will not be sued or embarrassed as a result of your video shoot. Break that promise, and your entire community will know about it.

Cliff Ennico (www.succeedinginyourbusiness.com), a leading expert on small business law and taxes, is the author of “Small Business Survival Guide,” “The eBay Seller’s Tax and Legal Answer Book” and 15 other books. Follow Cliff: @cliffennico