Stock photos are a godsend to advertisers, designers, and anyone else who needs digital imagery to enhance their current project. Stock photos, footage, and other elements can be used when you need something in a pinch, are useful for adding that splash of color or just the right finishing touch to your project, and greatly enhance the professionalism and overall effect of whatever you’re working on.
Bottom line, stock photos make any concept clearer to visualize and understand. But one thing that stock photography doesn’t clarify is the legalities involved in using royalty-free images - when you can use them, how many times you can use them, in what format you can use them. With so many rules and exceptions, it’s easy to get yourself into a whole heap of trouble using stock images if you don’t know what’s what. For the newly initiated (or even the old who’ve just never been fortunate enough to have it all spelled out for them previously), here’s a complete guide to stock photos do’s and don’ts in terms of the legal parameters.
Simply put, using stock photography in the wrong way is considered by the law as image theft. Using royalty-free images improperly in no small way can affect your business. In short, you can wind up in a messy lawsuit for copyright infringement, and you'll invariably need to pay exorbitantly for your misuse. So, knowing the rules and regulations is extremely important, whether you are using the stock images as a private consumer or business purposes.
A lot of people ask why they should bother purchasing stock photos in the first place. A quick Google search will turn up all of the images you need for free. When you do this, though, you open yourself up to an avalanche of legal issues from which you and your business will likely never get out. Google can send you to any image that is published on the internet. But that doesn't give you the legal rights to use those images. Only the person who originally created the image holds the rights to use it. This is what we call copyright.
Copyright is the legal right to basically do whatever the copyright holder wants with their creative works. So, when you find a photo online, you can’t just take it and use it as you please. You’ll need to get permission from the creator first. Using these images without permission will land you in the same legal troubles that misusing licensed photos can. This can result in tremendous financial losses as well as the often permanent damage done to your brand’s image (not to mention that it can be downright embarrassing).
Content creators (photographers, authors, designers, videographers, etc.) will frequently sell their creative works or sell licenses to use those works under specific conditions. When you purchase a license for a stock photo, you can use it as long as you stay within the parameters of that particular type of licensing conditions. Here are a few of the different types of licenses you can purchase that will enable you to use stock photography without legal issues:
- Seat license
- End-user license
- Single and multiple application licenses
- Multi-domain or multiple client licenses
- Editorial use and commercial use licenses
There are two licenses that are most commonly used by stock image libraries and sites online. Namely, royalty-free image licenses and rights-managed image licenses. Since these are the two prevalent licenses, let’s take a closer look at the legalities involved with royalty-free and rights-managed licenses.
This is the broadest license you can get. It gives you the right to use the image many times without having to pay again and again for each use. You’ll purchase the royalty-free image once, and then you can use it again and again. This type of license comes with certain restrictions regarding how you can use them, but we’ll cover that in a minute. Generally, RF images will come with 1-10 seat licenses.
The main difference between royalty-free images and other types is that these photos are non-exclusive. That means many people can purchase the same image indefinitely. This allows artists to keep the price for images low, making royalty-free photos the cheapest option for stock photography. It also means that other people may use the same image as you in their advertisements.
Within this category, there are two further distinctions to be made. Royalty-free images can be for commercial use or for editorial use. Commercial use licenses are the more common type and give a bit more flexibility. Editorial-licensed images can be used for editorial and non-commercial purposes like newspapers, magazines, and blogs. But it can’t be used in any type of advertorial way. For all other purposes, commercially-licensed images are required.
Rights-managed stock photos are the creme de' la creme of stock photography. These images are expensive because they are exclusive. That means no one else is allowed to use these images except you. However, there are even more restrictions when it comes to rights-managed stock footage and photos. You are more limited in how you can use the images, and this license expires over time.
Royalty-free doesn’t mean totally free. The creator still holds the copyright, remember. So, even though RF images are the most flexible types of stock photos, you are still limited in terms of exactly what you can do with the images. Here are the most common rules that apply to royalty-free stock images:
- You can use your stock photos in any geographic location without limitations.
- You can use the stock images multiple times (the limit is usually somewhere between 500,000 to 1 million times).
- You can use your stock photography in print, digital, and other methods.
- You can use your stock images within designs you are going to sell to a client by modifying and embedding them in your design.
- You can edit, modify, and use the stock photos however you’d like.
- You can use these images on billboards, advertising campaigns, films, and other audiovisual presentations.
- You can use stock photos for personal, non-commercial use.
- You can use your stock images on websites, mobile apps, social media, email marketing, and other digital publications.
- Copies of the stock photo cannot exceed 500,000 or $10000 in production costs for audiovisual presentations.
- You cannot transfer the legal rights to anyone else. This includes selling, sharing, or giving it as a gift.
- You cannot use the stock images as part of your logo, trademark, or other type of branding.
- You can't use stock photos in any defamatory way or with a negative connotation towards the image.
- You cannot use stock images in a way that implies the subject of the image endorses a product or service.
- You cannot use royalty-free stock photos in morally-questionable ways (this includes pornography, adult-related content, and illegal activities).
To keep yourself covered, here are some tips to help stay protected when using stock images:
- Buy royalty-free images and rights-managed images from a reliable stock photo service. Sites like Shutterstock, DreamsTime, Envato, and Pond5 have a good reputation for being on the up and up.
- Use attributions whenever possible. This isn’t always a legal requirement (often it’s not), but it’s a good practice to help you avoid issues when attribution is necessary.
- Buy stock photos in the right size to avoid issues later on.
Check legal rights, permissions, modification specifications, and any other details the company or artist may have put in the fine print. The last thing you'd want is to create a winning ad campaign for your company only to have it land you in a $1M lawsuit because you used the stock images the wrong way.