What is the difference between microstock and macrostock image websites? Traditionally, there was a clear distinction, but this has become more blurry today, particularly as the microstock image websites have stepped onto the macrostock image websites' turf.
Macrostock image websites generally sell you exclusive rights to images (or other media products). This means that only you have the right to use them, they are yours only. To get an exclusive right to purchase an image also means that the cost of this image will normally be high compared to an image sold at a microstock image agency.
Some users need, or at least want, exclusive rights to use an image (or other media products). For instance, if an image will be used in a marketing campaign intended to reach millions of people, one would ideally want an exclusive product. Meaning, one would not want the same image to also be used in a different marketing campaign by someone else, to appear on someone else's website, blog, etc. This happened a few years ago when PC competitors Dell and Gateway used the same photo in their “Back to School” promotional campaigns. Needless to say, this was a big embarrassment to both PR campaigns.
In addition, many website owners would not want the images they use on their website to also appear on other websites or elsewhere.
Microstock image websites on the other hand, sell you images and other media products without giving you an exclusive right to them. In other words, these agencies can sell the same image to several users. These users then normally get what's called a royalty-free license to the media product, or in some cases a rights-managed license.
To have such non-exclusive rights to use products works well in many circumstances. Let's say you have a blog and you need a few images every week for your blogposts. You are probably fine if your images are also used 10 or 20 other places on the web. Or if you have a website that needs 100 different images on various pages, you are probably also OK to use images that are used sparingly elsewhere.
The big upside of non-exclusive licenses, is that they are significantly less expensive than exclusive ones. While an exclusive license can cost you $100 or more, a non-exclusive license can cost you less than $1.
You should also be aware that owners of images (or other media products) who have chosen to sell non-exclusive rights to their images, may also sell these rights to several stock image websites. This means that you may find the same product on more than one stock image website.
However, the distinction between microstock and macrostock has lately become more blurry. This is because many microstock image websites now also offer an extended license to their products. If you purchase this license to a product, the product will normally be withdrawn from further sale at the stock image website, which means no other users can purchase the right to use this product in the future. However, users that purchased a right to use the product before you acquired the extended license, still have the right to use the product according to their license agreement.
In terms of quality of the products, there is little distinction between macrostock image websites and the top microstock image websites.