Understanding Stock Photo Licensing

by Kim G on December 12, 2010

photo collageThroughout this blog, I’ve talked about using professional stock photos in you desktop publishing projects.  Whether you are making a flyer, creating a brochure or any other publication, using stock photography is a quick and easy way to communicate meaning, and give a polished and professional look to your publications.  Now, I know we’ve all used Google’s image search to find photos and pictures for our projects, however, this method puts you in jeopardy of violating copyright laws.  The Internet now has many different stock photo websites that have cheap and even free photos, which allow us respect the owners’ copyright guidelines.  If you are creating publications and marketing materials for your business, or if you are a desktop publisher, don’t risk you business and reputation by breaking copyright laws.  Take time to understand licensing laws and familiarize yourself with usage rules and licensing of professional stock photos and images.

Also See:  Stock Photo Websites

What is Copyright?

Most professional photos available on the Internet are copyright protected.  A copyright  protects the creator’s “original works” such as books, art, photography, movies and software. The copyright protects the work from unauthorized copying, distribution and modifications for a specific amount of time.  Once the copyright has expired,  it enters the public domain, at which point the work is free for anyone to use.  Copyright is for a limited time period.  Almost all stock photos have some kind of copyright, but they can still be used as long as you follow licensing guidelines.

Understanding Copyright Licenses for Images

Rights Managed (RM) Licenses

Rights managed copyright  licenses  allows you to use the photos for one particular project.  If you want to use that photo for other projects, you’ll  have to purchase a new license.  The terms of use are clearly specified in the license agreement.  Some RM images can be purchased for exclusive use, meaning no one else can use the photo once you’ve purchased the license.  RM image licenses can be expensive, ranging from several hundred to several thousand dollars, depending on the size of the photograph, and how it will be used.

Royalty Free (RF) Licenses

Royalty free copyright licenses allow you to use the photo for multiple projects, for a one-time fee.  This means that after paying a stock photo agency a fee, you have the right to use the photo as often as you want, usually for as long as you need.  You usually cannot obtain exclusive rights to RF images.

Royalty free images are not necessarily “free of charge”.  However, most royalty free photos are reasonably priced.  Prices are usually based on the size of the file (DPI  Dots Per Inch), and can range in price from less than one dollar to hundreds of dollars, depending on the company.  Some RF image companies offer subscription pricing plans where you can download images over a fixed period of time for a flat fee.

Even though the photos can be used for multiple projects,  there are often many guidelines and restrictions.  These guidelines vary depending on which website you purchase your RF files.  Some of these restrictions may include:

  • Files cannot be shared with others
  • Files cannot be made available for download
  • Images cannot be resold to others
  • Images cannot be used in an obscene manner
  • There may be restriction on using images in logos, or in other printed commercial items such as tee shirts, coffee mugs, downloadable templates, etc.

These are just a few of the restrictions.  Make sure you understand the terms of your license when you use royalty free images.  Sometimes the published agreements can be very long and difficult to understand.  When in doubt, call or email the image company to get clarification.

Creative Commons License Images
Creative Commons is a non-profit organization that works with artists to share their work and to increase the amount of items available for free, public use.  The Creative Commons license does not take away a person’s copyright.   It is used along with the copyright.  Photographers can change their copyright settings any time that they want to.  There are licensing guidelines to help you understand how you can use the photo.  The website Flickr has thousands of great Creative Commons photos available for use.  There are additional guidelines associated with Creative Commons Licenses, so make sure you familiarize yourself with license rules before you use the image.

Public Domain Images

Public domain images are images where the copyright has expired, or never had copyright protection.  They can also be photos where the owner has released the work into the public domain.  Photos and images owned by the government are usually public domain.  Before using any photos or graphics from a government website, check the licensing or rights information on the site.

Understanding photo and imaging licensing can get tricky, so take the time to understand the different licensing agreements.  Don’t risk legal action by violating copyright agreements, especially if you’ve worked hard to build your business.

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