Stock Photo Licensing Models Explained

The differences between licenses under which stock photos are offered

Stock photos play an important role in the web design process, giving us access to great imagery to use on our websites. While there are certainly instances where custom photography is required, the wide selection and attractive pricing of stock photos make them a perfect fit for many web design needs.

When evaluating images to use on your website, you will notice that different images are licensed in different ways.

It is important to understand these licensing models so you can choose the right image, both in terms of subject matter and licensing requirements.

When search for images, you will come across three basic licenses – Creative Commons, Royalty Free, and Rights Managed. Let’s take a look at each of these licensing models.

Creative Commons

These images are offered at no-cost, but you must be mindful of the exact type of Creative Commons license that is being used.

Some Creative Commons images allow you to "Share Alike" and create derivatives of those images as you see fit, as long as you maintain the same license that the original image had and/or give attribution back to the original source. Others prohibit any kind of alterations to the image. If you plan to use an image and change it in some significant way, you must make sure that the terms of that image allow for those changes.

Some Creative Commons images also have a "Non-commercial" license, which restricts their usage for only non-commercial reasons.There is some debate to as to what constitutes "non-commercial", and many designers working on for-profit projects opt to avoid images licensed as non-commercial altogether.

While free images licensed under the Creative Common’s banner may be attractive from a pricing perspective, the reality is that most for-profit companies are better served turning to stock photo sites which offer terms that are more in line with their needs.

Royalty Free

Despite the word “free” in the name, Royalty Free images do come with a cost, although as competition has increased for stock image sites online, that pricing has come way down.

Today, you can get excellent stock images online for as little as $1.

The nice thing about Royalty Free images is that you pay that cost as a one-time charge and then you are able to use the image on your site or in your company’s other materials with no additional costs required. This makes it easy to manage your site’s images, because once you buy them, you never need to worry again and you can remix those images as you see fit.

Typically, the only restrictions to Royalty Free images are that you cannot resell those images by adding a bunch to a collection and making them available for purchase. In some cases, you also need to be careful if you are using stock images of people for subject matter that is very sensitive, such as medical conditions or advertising products like alcohol or tobacco. In cases like these, you will need to contact the stock image provider to ensure that the files can be used in the way that you require.

Royalty Free images are what I use most often in my own work.

Rights Managed

While many stock images carry the Royalty Free license, some images are licensed under an agreement called Rights Managed. This license requires you to decide where the image with be used (website, printed brochure, product package, etc.), at what size, and for how long you want to use it.

Based on your answers, the cost of the license is determined.

The challenge with Rights Managed images (other than the variable cost) is that once your time under contract is done, you must pay more if you want to continue using it. If you fail to renew your license but continue using the image anyway, you open yourself up to fines – and trust me, stock photo companies are very good at finding sites who are using their images without the proper license in place!

You can find some amazing images that are under Rights Managed licensing, but the added logistics of using these images pushes many people to look for Royalty Free licensing instead.

Custom Images

As I mentioned at the start of this article, there will be some instances where custom images are needed for a project. If you do decide to hire a professional photographer to take some custom shots for your company, be sure to find out what the terms of those images are.

In most cases, the photographer will retain copyright, but you will be granted an exclusive license to use the images for as long as needed.

Edited by Jeremy Girard on 1/24/17