Dear Rich: I read an article about a man who took pictures of the Beatles when he was a teen and recently sold them. That got me thinking about my 23-year old negatives I have of the singer Roy Orbison and his family. I was working on a Christmas card for the family and shot several rolls of film. A month and a half after the photo shoot Mr. Orbison passed away. As the photographer I had them sign a release and I still maintain the negatives. Question is: Do I have the right to print and market those images? If so, what do I need to market images and how far may I go in creating additional marketable images? OMG! We just realized Roy Orbison has been gone for almost 25 years! It seems like yesterday that the In Dreams star passed away. What has the Dear Rich Staff been doing all these years?
Right, you had a question. The short answer is that you can sell copies of your photographs (prints) and you can license the photos for editorial uses such as books and website articles. But you cannot license them for commercial uses such as product endorsements or merchandise unless such rights were conveyed to you by the people signing the releases (unlikely).
The longer answer. There are three legal principles at work: copyright, contracts, and the right of publicity. Unless the photos were done under an employment relationship, copyright grants the photographer (the person who took the pictures) the right to copy and create derivatives of the photos. The right of publicity allows the subject of the photo to control the way their image is used for endorsements and merchandise. Contracts are used to transfer these rights. So, the photographer retains copyright unless a contract transfers that right and the subject retains the right of publicity unless that right is transferred by contract (for example, a release). For that reason, you will obtain the most reliable answer after someone reviews your photo releases to determine what rights were granted to you.