Stock Image Licensing Guide

    December 19, 2006

So you’ve landed the client and their branding project. Congratulations! Now you’ve got to get down to the business of creating their marketing collateral-everything from the logo on the letterhead to the tri-fold brochure and interactive web site.

If you’re like most designers, at some point in the process you’ll start looking around for appropriate imagery that visually displays the story you’re trying to tell. But that’s not the only thing you’ll need to keep an eye out for-you’ll also want to make sure that the image’s licensing structure meets your business needs.

Photo and image licensing can be a bit confusing to even seasoned designers; we’ve put together a photo licensing primer below. There are three basic types of licenses-and a one common practice we’re calling an ‘un-license’. Let’s take a look at them now:

Royalty-Free Licensing

When you purchase a photo or illustration with a royalty-free license, you have the rights to use the image over and over again* without having to pay additional fees to the person who created it. And there’s no time limit on when or how long you can use that image. That makes royalty-free artwork an excellent choice for a designer on a budget.

But see the little asterisk next to ‘over and over again’? It’s there for a reason, as even royalty-free licensing doesn’t give you free reign to reproduce the image an infinite number of times. Most royalty-free images have a numerical limit on the number of times they may be printed (some allow up to 100,000 printings; others may allow half a million printings) Check the ‘terms of use’ wherever you purchase your royalty-free images for their specific limitations.

And it’s also worth noting that royalty-free photos and images can be sold as many times as the creator desires-there is no guarantee that the great ‘balanced stones’ photo you’ve chosen for your site’s home page won’t show up on another web site, in a brochure or on a billboard belonging to someone elseeven your competition. With royalty-free, there’s no such thing as exclusivity-you’ll want to keep this in mind if you’re considering using royalty-free artwork for elements that are integral to your client’s long-term branding.

Royalty-free images are good for:

Designers who are doing work on spec, or working with clients that have small budgets

Designers who need to buy an image now but may not use it for some time

Royalty-free images aren’t good for:

Designers who want assurance that no one else will be using the same image

Designers who are doing large print runs

Rights-Managed Licensing

Purchasing a rights-managed image allows you rights to use the image for a specified time, in a specified format, in a specific geographic area-and it’s typically much more expensive than royalty-free artwork. So why would anyone want to pay more for rights-managed when it’s a lot more restrictive than royalty-free? One word: exclusivity. Most rights-managed images guarantee some form of exclusivity-even if it’s just making sure that no one in within a 50-mile radius of your business will be using the same image.

Choosing a rights-managed image means that you’ll pay each time you make use of the image; you’d pay a fee to use it in your brochure, and a separate fee to use it in a billboard advertisement. And, gaining permission to use the image is often more time-consuming than simply purchasing and downloading a royalty-free imagethere are questions to answer and paperwork to fill out. But if you want to make sure that no one else will be using the same image, rights-managed is the only way to guarantee that the great image you choose for your Yellow Pages ad won’t be the same image your competition chose for their ad on the facing page.

Rights-managed licensing also lends itself nicely to larger print runs. Magazines, newspapers and other high-volume printers will often choose rights-managed photos over royalty-free photos, both to ensure exclusivity as well as contain costs

Rights-managed images are good for:

Designers who want exclusive imagery for their design projects

Designers whose clients can afford to pay for the exclusive use of a photo or illustration

Designers who are creating materials for large print runs

Rights-managed images aren’t good for:

Designers with small budgets

Designers with tight timelines, as image procurement paperwork can be time-consuming

Rights-Ready Licensing

Rights-ready is the newest form of licensing, created by (and only available for) images purchased through Getty Images. Touted as the best of both licenses, rights-ready promises the hassle-free experience of royalty-free licensing with the exclusivity promised by rights-managed licensing. At this time, rights-ready licensing is only available on the ‘Riser’ collection of Getty’s images.

Only time will tell if Getty has created a license that will end up being an industry standard. With that in mind, check out the collection just so you know all of your options.

Un-licensing (or Illegal Use of Images)

The last (but not least common) type of license isn’t actually a license at all-it’s what happens when a designer ‘borrows’ an image from another web site or via a Google Images search. The technical term for this is copyright infringement, and while it may be the quickest and easiest way to get an image, it is also illegal. ‘Borrowed’ images don’t offer credit or payment to the creator; getting caught using them can be not only embarrassing, but costly if the creator chooses to pursue legal action.

An Informed Choice is a Smarter Choice

So now that you know the different kinds of stock image licenses available, you’ll be better informed to make smart choices. Are you designing a book cover for a nationally-known author? You’ll need the exclusivity and high print run-friendliness of rights-managed artwork. Putting together a brochure for your local church or children’s group? Royalty-free is the way to go. Right-clicking and selecting ‘copy this photo’ from another web site while you’re online? That kind of practice can be both embarrassing and costly. Whatever you’re designing, stock photography providers are sure to have a license that will work for your needs. Why not take advantage of it?


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Bryan Zmijewski is founder and chief instigator of LuckyOliver (, a stock photography site that sells high-quality royalty-free images for about $1, Bryan is a professional amateur photographer, a lecturer in Stanford University’s design department (his alma mater) and a dad. Contact Bryan at or by visiting