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Royalty-Free Stock Image License

Royalty-free licensing became popular with the rise of the internet because it made digital image distribution easy. And today the vast majority of stock images are licensed as royalty-free.

But what is a royalty-free image? Or a royalty-free license? Does it mean it’s free? Or what does it mean..?

If you want answers to any of these questions, you are in the right place.

Because this article will tell you all you need to know about royalty-free licenses.

First off, there really isn’t such a thing as a ‘royalty-free image’. Images themselves normally can’t be ‘royalty-free’.

It’s the license that is ‘royalty-free’.

Let’s make sure we understand this concept:

An image that is available on a stock image website is governed by a license.

royalty free stock images
royalty-free license for stock images

This license dictates how you can and cannot use this image. For instance, a license may enable you use the image on your website to sell a product, but not for anything that has to do with pornography.

To learn more about licenses, please go here.

A royalty-free license is simply one type of licenses. There are also other licenses such as rights-managed licenses, and extended licenses.

So then what is a royalty-free license? And what rights does this royalty-free license give you?

First of all, a royalty-free license is not free. You will have to make a one-time upfront payment for it. But you only have to make this payment once. Regardless of how you use the image in the future, you will not have to pay any further payments (or royalties), hence ‘royalty-free’.

If you rather want free images, please check out the top 10 free stock image sites here.

The royalty-free license gives you the right to use the image forever.

You also get the right to choose how you want to use the image, how many times you want to use it, how many projects you want to use it for, which geographies you want to use it in, etc.

In other words:

In exchange for a one-time payment, you obtain the right to use the image forever and however you want to use it, without additional fees or interruption from the copyright owner, as long as your use of the product conforms with the license agreement.

Because there is still a license agreement that will normally spell out some restrictions on your use.

Typically, you will not be allowed to resell or transfer the product to any other owner. And you will typically not be allowed to use the product in an offensive, discriminatory, pornographic, etc. fashion.

For certain royalty-free products, you may also find commercial restrictions, such as specifying upper limits on number of copies you can produce. For instance, you may only be granted the right to use the image on 1,000 copies of a printed flyer.

It is recommended to always read the license agreement to understand the full scope of use. You find the license agreements to all the top stock image websites in the ABOUT section here.

A royalty-free license normally also has another key feature: It’s not exclusive.

What does this mean?

It means that other users also have the exact same rights to the image as you do. Meaning, other users can use the same image on their website, blogpost, ad, etc.

So when you use an image that is governed by a royalty-free license, it is possible that you will see this image somewhere else on the web or in printed media.

Also, even though you obtain the right to use a royalty-free product, you do not own the copyright to the product or the product itself.

This copyright ownership still resides with the person or company who took or created the image (unless the copyright was later sold).

This arrangement allows the copyright holder (normally the photographer) to sell multiple rights to the image and therefore earn income several times (every time someone purchases a right to it).

Stock image agencies such as Shutterstock, Dreamstime, Depositphotos, etc., then act as brokers and sell these licenses to end-users on behalf of the copyright owners.

To learn more about how stock image agencies work, please go here.

Overview Of Key Features Of Royalty-Free Licenses

Each stock image website (or agency) will have its own specific terms and rules regarding their royalty-free licenses, which you find in the license agreement.

However, here are the key features that are typically found among all the stock image agencies:

Payment: It will require a one-time upfront payment.

Duration: You can use the image forever.

Usability: You can use the image on a website, advertisement, social media, print media and any other manner you want (within restrictions specified in the license agreement).

Frequency: You can use the image as many times as you want.

Projects: You can use the image in as many different projects and campaigns as you want to.

Geography: You can use the image in any geography worldwide.

Credits: You are not required to credit the copyright owner.

Non-transferable: Only a buyer that has been granted a license to the image can use it. You cannot resell it, gift it to someone, or transfer the ownership to another user.

Non-exclusive: A royalty-free license will normally be available to several users. Therefore, you will not have exclusive rights to it. If you want exclusive rights, you need to purchase an exclusive or extended license. To learn more about extended licenses, please go here.  

Prohibited Use: You cannot use an image for pornographic or sexually explicit purposes. An image also cannot be used in an offensive, obscene, discriminatory or morally questionable manner. You also cannot use images with models or properties in such a way that it puts the models or properties in a negative position. Also, you cannot use a royalty-free licensed image as part of a logo, trademark or anything that is copyrighted from your side, as you do not own the copyright to the image.

Royalty-Free Licenses Have Two Different Labels: Editorial And Commercial

A royalty-free licensed image can be labeled either editorial or commercial, and this will determine whether you can use the image to sell or promote a product or service.

Editorial: Images that are labeled ‘editorial’ are often taken during a real-life event or situation. They also normally involve private people and / or properties (buildings, land, shops, factories, logos etc.).

Given that these images include private persons and / or private property, you are not allowed to use these products for commercial purposes. This means you cannot use these images to sell, advertise or promote a product or service.

So how can you then use an image that is labeled editorial?

An editorial image can be used to illustrate newsworthy and current events. It can also be used to illustrate subjects of public interest, such as: the arts, business, culture, health and fitness, lifestyle, social events, technology and travel.

Commercial: Images that are labeled ‘commercial’ can be used to sell, advertise or promote a product or service.

You can use these images for selling merchandise and services, for advertisements, for product packaging, and most other for-profit activities, both in digital and physical formats.

When you look at images on most stock image websites, you will see that each image is labeled as either commercial or editorial.

To learn more about the difference between editorial and commercial use, please go here.

The Most Common Uses Of Royalty-Free Licensed Images

Royalty-free stock images are today used by a large number of different users, such as bloggers, website owners, graphic designers, advertisers, etc.

They are very widely used because they are normally of very high quality, the variety of images is very large, they are inexpensive and they are available immediately.

Here are some of the most common uses of these royalty-free stock images:

Websites: Whether a website is owned and operated by a busy mom, or by a large multi-national corporation, a website normally needs images in order to be visually appealing and to satisfy users. Many, if not most websites, use royalty-free licensed stock images for this.

Blogs: A busy blogger often sends out several blog-posts a week. In order to keep the readers engaged, a blogger will often include illustrative or pretty images in the blog-posts. These images are often royalty-free licensed images.

Social Media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, etc.): Although less common than for websites and blogs, many social media posts also include royalty-free stock images.

Online Advertising: The goal of an ad is to capture the viewer’s interest and entice the viewer to take some action (such as purchasing a product or service). To make advertising campaigns appealing, many advertisers use stock images in their ads.

Print Advertising: Similar to online advertising, many print advertisers also use royalty-free stock images for their print ads.

Covers (books, magazines, CDs, DVDs): To have a nice front cover on a book or magazine for instance, many publishers prefer to use royalty-free licensed stock images.

Newspapers And Periodicals: When you read news online (or print publications) you will often see text immediately below images stating something like: (Picture: Getty Images). This is how news agencies use stock images to illustrate their news articles. Often these images will be used in an editorial context because they involve private persons (or private properties).

Creative And Artistic Projects: Sometimes a graphic designer or artist want to create a custom design or some particular creative. To do this, royalty-free licensed images are often used as part of this work.

Architects And Planners: Often, an architect or city planner will create a brochure or plan for how a proposed project will look when it is completed. For instance, an architect may want to create an illustrative of the re-development of an old train station into a multi-use commercial area. To make this plan or brochure pretty and informative, the architect may use royalty-free licensed stock images.

Print Designs: Several services offer prints to be custom made on coffee cups, t-shirts, etc. Sometimes you can also use stock images on these prints.

To learn more about the top stock image agencies that offer royalty-free licensed stock images, please go here.