Ultimate Guide to Rules for Using Stock Photos

Buying stock photos for the first time often comes with a lot of questions. Maybe you’re not quite sure how to use stock photos legally and ethically, or you want to advise your team, students, or colleagues on how to use stock photos correctly.

If you’re struggling to understand the legal rules for using stock photos for your project, or are overwhelmed with information about the legal and ethical implications of using stock images – this guide has got you covered. Just want to know what royalty-free means then jump right here.

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If you want to learn the rules to stock photos to use them in your business, our list with 102 expert tips for creating visual content is a must-read! And you should definitely check these photo editing free trials to take advantage of professional tools to edit your photos, for free.

Sourcing visual content, with the help of the internet, should be super-easy with just the click of a button. You can easily access and download millions of photos and videos on Google. But just like many things in life, rules have been put in place to control the procurement of content.

Copyright infringement is a serious matter that can cost a fortune and can bring havoc to your business, or worse, your reputation. When it comes to using photos online, it’s necessary to use copyright-free images and be fully aware of any attribution requirements.

So in this guide, Stock Photo Secrets have put together all the information you should know about copyright and stock photo licenses. We’ll also discuss the rules for using stock photos, how to protect yourself, how and when to credit, and some tips on using stock images — so read on!

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The need for high-quality images

If you haven't noticed yet, we are living in an increasingly visual world. Whether online or offline, high-quality photos and illustrations are in high demand. This is especially true in online and print marketing where high-quality photos are a necessary part of an effective marketing campaign. Almost as important as choosing the right color combinations for your brand identity.

Businesses of today require visual content on their websites, email campaigns, blogs, and social media profiles. The ’42 Visual Content Marketing Statistics You Should Know in 2017′, an article published by HubSpot, has some interesting statistics you should know:

  • After 3 days, people will most likely only retain 10% of the information they hear. However, when information is paired with an image, people can retain up to 65%.
  • With text and illustrations, people do 323% better compared to following directions without illustrations.
  • An increase of 2.3x more engagement is observed on Facebook posts with images.
  • On Twitter, tweets with images are likely to receive 150% more retweets.

By the way, if you need videos and music on top of images, here are some very cool multimedia subscriptions worth exploring!

Why use stock photos?

If you are managing a business, or a blog or you’re a graphic designer, design student, or social media influencer, you can greatly benefit from using stock photos. Also, for website builders and mobile apps, developers, the availability and wide selection of stock photos can significantly help enhance your project.

There is an abundance of high-quality stock photos that you can use to create stunning content for your marketing campaigns, engaging landing pages, or even for your eCommerce site.

Stock photography, in general, is an archive of ready-made photos which can be licensed commercially. Getting online images from a stock photo agency is one of the best ways to legally use photos for your project. All the more when they have great potential to be high-converting images.

In stock photography, there are usually two participants involved: the consumer and the photographer. You (the consumer) do the browsing and downloading of the images, while the photographer (image creator) submits and gets paid a percentage once their photos get licensed and downloaded. Stock photo agencies usually operate on a subscription or credit-based system.

Will using stock photos hurt my brand image?

Using stock photos won't hurt your brand's image providing that it works for you. When using stock photos, it is important to note that the image should match your content and be relevant to your business, or appeal to your target audience.

Also Keep in mind that whether you use free or paid royalty-free stock photos, it’s essential that you check their legality. Check usage clauses, image permissions, and modification criteria. You should also see if there's a need for credit attribution. (More on these below.

Legal implications

Whenever you use anything that you didn’t create, you should carefully check to see if you are violating any copyright law or other legal rights. When using or buying a stock photo, it’s crucial to thoroughly read and understand all of the licensing terms and agreements.

Understanding image copyright, stock photo licensing terms, and its usage rules are necessary for you or your client to avoid costly legal battles. Although copyright law and license agreements are somewhat complex, recognizing the basic elements and terms will significantly help you make better choices.

A consequence of carelessly using unauthorized images can result in you being taken to court for copyright infringement. Illegal use cases usually result in you paying huge amounts of money in damages.

A perfect example of this is Gigi Hadid being sued by a photo agency for posting a photo of herself taken by a photographer during a photoshoot. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court before Hadid eventually won the case under the fair-use clause (see below).

Another possible ramification is that the image owner or creator might send you a DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) take-down request, invoice you, and demand payment and/or attribution. If you fail to honour their request, a Cease and Desist order will follow which could result in a lawsuit.

This shouldn’t be taken lightly. Especially now that, with the help of online tools, photographers or image creators can easily track down offenders. And regardless of your intention, unauthorized use of images — used online or offline — is considered image theft.

Instances like these can be both embarrassing and financially damaging. It can also be detrimental to your brand's reputation. That's why it is best to know the licensing rules and choose either royalty-free images or seek permission first from the image creator.

Why you should refrain from using images from Google

It's not safe for you to just use images found on Google. This is because Google doesn’t hold the copyright and only indexes the images under the protection of Fair Use rules. Therefore, Google doesn’t have the authority to permit the usage of images. Only the photographer or image creator can legally grant it.

Understanding Copyright, its Limitations, and Usage Rules

  • Copyright
    A legal right that grants the creator of an original work the exclusive rights to control the use, sale, distribution, and reproduction is known as copyright. This covers all kinds of creative work and allows the creator to protect their work, and also generate revenue from it.
    So when a photo is copyrighted, you will need to get the necessary permission from the creator before you can legally use it. This is the reason why you should be careful when downloading and using images you find online, especially with free image sites like Unsplash, Pexels, or Pixabay.
  • What if there's no copyright sign?
    One common misconception is that if the image has no copyright notice or sign means that it's in the public domain. You need to remember that even if there is no visible copyright sign, the image may still be under the protection of copyright laws.
    To be on the safe side, be certain that there is a clear indication that the photo is in the public domain, or that the photo has a Creative Commons license.
  • Creative Commons
    Creative Commons is a nonprofit organization that provides free and easy-to-use copyright licenses which give the public permission to share and use creative works under the creator's condition.
    These conditions may require you to write source attribution or may put limitations as to what you can do or how you can use the image. You can visit the Creative Commons website to find out more about what they do.

Copyright laws differ from each country, including their limitations and exceptions. And one primary limitation to copyright is Fair Use.

Fair Use Doctrine

Coming from the US copyright law, the term “Fair Use” means that brief excerpts of copyrighted materials may be quoted verbatim, under certain circumstances, for purposes such as in a parody, new technologies, commentary, criticism, and other transformative uses, without payment or implied permission from the copyright holder (creator).

This is particularly relevant when using photos taken of you by a professional photographer, specifically when the intended use is for commercial purposes.

It simply means that under Fair Use, you are legally allowed and protected to use someone else's work without the need for you to ask permission or pay the image creator. The problem with Fair Use is that it’s often deemed too general and somewhat vague.

You may face a common dilemma in determining if something falls under Fair Use. Moreover, the Supreme Court purposely leaves it open to interpretation, assessing copyright infringement cases on a case-by-case basis.

Judges base their decision on determining whether a case falls under Fair Use using five common factors:

  • The nature of the copyrighted work
  • The amount and substantiality of the portion used with the copyrighted work
  • The purpose and character of the use
  • The effects on the potential market or value of the copyrighted work
  • If the use was transformative

Key licensing terms and definitions

For you to fully understand the common types of licenses, you should know the key licensing terms for stock images. Below are the common terms and their definitions:

Seat license

Seat license refers to the number of people who have the right to access and use the photo at a given time. In a single-seat license, it allows only one individual to download and use the image. While in a multi-seat license, it allows a specified number of individuals, usually around 3 to 5 persons, to download and use the image.

End-user / End-product

An end-user refers to the entity or last person(s) who the photo is intended to reach. While end-product is where the image will ultimately appear.

Single & multiple application

In a single application, there's only one end-user and one end-product. On the other hand, in multiple applications, there are multiple end-users but only one end-product.

Multi-domain and Multiple clients

In multi-domain, there's only one client, but multiple end-products. Whereas in multiple clients, there are no specified client limits so as long as the respective intentions aren’t in conflict with the other licensing terms.

Editorial use and commercial use

Editorial use license allows the image to be used only to illustrate a point in an article and not for selling. On the contrary, in a commercial use license, the image is used to sell something.

Two Common Types of Licenses Stock Image Agencies Offer

Below are the two most common types of licenses offered by stock image agencies.

1. Royalty-free image license

A royalty-free (RF) license grants you a basic right to use the image over and over again with no additional cost upon purchase (one-time payment). You (or the end-user) may buy the photo size you need and use it as much as you want for permitted uses defined in the licensing agreement. Royalty-free image licenses usually provide one end-user 1-10 seat-licenses.

This type of license is cheap but it is non-exclusive. Some stock image websites claim to offer royalty-free images but impose several restrictions in terms of how and what you can do with the image. Thus, it's very important to buy a true royalty-free image or check the license agreement first.

Main Features of Royalty-Free Images

Having the right to use a stock photo – whether licensed under RF or RM – doesn’t entail the transfer of copyright. The image creator still holds ownership of the photo. You (the buyer) only have the right to use the photos.

Consequently, RF-licensed images have specific rights and restrictions that apply to them. Each stock photography agencies have its licensing terms. That's why it's important to read the agreement. Below are its most common features:

  • Non-transferable – only the buyer has the legal right to use it. You can’t share, gift, or resell it.
  • Non-exclusive – RF images can be used by as many people who bought the license.
  • Worldwide – there's no geographic limitation associated with RF photos (unless specified in the license agreement)
  • Perpetual – there's no time limitation associated with RF photos (unless specified in the license agreement)
  • Multiple-use – allows multiple uses of the image, be it print, digital, or other methods

Also, there are two different types of RF image licenses:

1) Editorial RF license – with this license, you can only use the image for editorial purposes. Commercial usage of it is prohibited.

2) Commercial RF license – with this license, you can use the image in any commercial purpose. However, depending on the agency, the reproduction run is usually limited in 500,000 copies. You can buy an Extended RF license to give extra rights for unlimited reproduction, use the image in products for resale, and no multimedia distribution restrictions.

Restrictions to Usage of Royalty-Free Images

The following are the basic restrictions of RF images. It’s important to note these restrictions, especially if you intend to incorporate the image into a website branding or logo. Each agency has the right to add or remove restrictions to the usage of RF images, so you need to make sure to read the terms.

  • The image (as a whole) can’t be used as part of a trademark or logo.
  • The image can’t be shared, gifted, or transferred to any third-party
  • The image should be part of an integral design, reselling or redistributing it is prohibited
  • The image can’t be used in any defamatory way which could give a negative connotation on the image’s contents (persons, properties)
  • The image can’t be used in morally questionable uses like pornographic or adult-related content
  • The persons and properties in the image can’t be used in such a way that it would appear they are directly endorsing a product or service

If you are a graphic designer, you can use RF images in designs that you will sell to clients, providing images that are modified and embedded in your design. As mentioned above, you can’t resell RF images as they are.

Pricing: Royalty-free images are amongst the most affordable options in stock photography. However, if you still can't cover their cost, you can benefit from one of the amazing free trials from this list!

2. Rights-Managed image license

Rights-Managed (RM) is a type of stock image license where the image price is calculated based on the following:

  • how often do you use the image
  • the image display size, placement, and geographical areas
  • the medium and duration of use
  • how many viewers will potentially see the image

This type of license is exclusive, expensive, expires, and has the most restrictions. RM image licenses only allow one person to purchase the image and have the sole rights to use it. You should be careful to read the license agreement to avoid infringement of uses or expired rights.

Use case – for whom could this be relevant

Attributions: how and when to credit photo

Typically, attributions are often found in an Editorial use of an image. Regardless of the type of license (Royalty-Free or Rights-Managed), crediting a photo isn’t legally required unless stated otherwise in the license agreement. Including a photo credit is an ethical thing to do and is, therefore, a good practice.

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Ethical concerns

Aside from its legal implications, using stock imagery also has some ethical concerns that you need to consider. Using someone else's photo is unethical as it's a form of stealing, as is selling copyrighted photos and claiming them as your own.

This is particularly relevant with the abundance of free images available from amateur and pro photographers from sites like Unsplash and Burst. However, these aren’t the only ethical issue worth discussing. 

Using stock photos to drive user engagement

Based on the stats that people are more drawn to online posts that have visual content, more and more organizations are using stock photos to drive engagement. The problem with this is that some stock images used are generic and have nothing to do with the story.

This is especially true with blogs that make use of dramatic stock photos for click-bait purposes, designed to grab the attention of online users. Choosing the right image can be a time-consuming task, but is worth the effort when you engage with your ideal target audience.

Another unethical practice used to drive traffic is creating large online galleries. These galleries usually contain photos that don’t have a narrative. It's usually uploaded for the sole purpose of driving engagement and generating more clicks.

Protecting yourself

We are going to discuss some must-follow rules for using stock images. These will help to protect yourself from any issues associated with stock images. Keep on reading for tips to help ensure that you are using an image legally and ethically.

  1. Although some stock image websites offer RF images for free, it's still wiser and safer to buy RF and RM-licensed images.
  2. Make sure to buy or download images only from reputable stock photography agencies like Stockphotos.comPhotocaseShutterstockiStock, and Adobe Stock. Check out more Stock Photo Secrets trusted stock agencies list and enjoy special offers for our readers.
  3. Always read and carefully adhere to the license guidelines for image use.
  4. Create proper attributions, especially if you're using the image for editorial use. Depending on your license, attributions aren’t legally required but it’s good practice. If unsure how to make proper attributions, use Creative Commons TASL (Title, Author, Source, License) approach.
  5. If you spot a usage violation, immediately correct it. If the copyright holder requests you to take down an image, do so right away.
  6. You should download the correct image size according to your needs.
  7. Only search and use images that suit your needs or your brand.
  8. Refrain from using outdated and generic images by staying up-to-date with the latest photography trends.
  9. Use authentic stock photos and photos that are not stock photography if you want to get some reaction on social media and on Instagram with your photos

Best practices

And now that we're through discussing everything you must know about the rules for using stock photos, here are some bonus tips for using them. For more, check out our archive on Stock Photography Licensing.

These best practices will help you enhance your project and help you avoid using stock photos in the wrong way.

  • Use high-quality images, and avoid using blurry or poorly-photographed images.
  • Use images that are relevant to your content, fit and speak your story, or suit your brand.
  • Modify the image whenever necessary but never overcomplicate the process.
  • Use stock images that are relatable to your target audience.

Key Takeaways

Do you need permission to use stock photos?

Yes. Stock photos are copyrighted, meaning someone owns them. In order to use them legally, you need permission. Such permission is known as a license, a contract that authorizes you to use the image in certain ways. Without a valid license, you cannot use a stock photo.

Where can I use stock photos?

Virtually anywhere! Stock photos have endless possible uses. Royalty-free stock images are cleared for commercial use and can be used for marketing and advertising, branding, and all sorts of creative and commercial projects, be them digital like on websites or social media, or print like for billboards, signage or stationery, etc.

When should you not use stock photos?

It's not so much about not using stock photos, as it is about not using the wrong kind of stock photo.
Certain stock images –dated, old stock images– can be detrimental to your brand because they look generic and unnatural (think of the suited man in the Superman pose), and audiences do not click with them.
But modern stock photos, which you can now find at any reputable stock photo site, are realistic, candid-looking, and slightly more artistic. You should always use this kind of stock photos, for every purpose.

Can I use stock photos in my book?

Yes. Most licenses, including royalty free and rights managed, allow you to use stock photography in your book. Sometimes the license you need varies depending on whether you want it for cover art or for in-book illustration, and there are restrictions for the number of copies, but overall this use is accepted.

Should you use stock photos for social media?

Sure, why not! Social media channels are highly visual and images go a long way on these platforms. Using stock photos is a great way to feed beautiful visuals to your followers daily and easily. Just make sure to use authentic stock photos, as those are the ones that work best on social media.

Is it safe to use free stock photos?

Depends. Free stock photos are under the public domain or usually under a variant of the Creative Commons license that enables free use. In that sense, they are safe. But for the said license to be valid, there are boxes to check: the license must be authorized by the copyright owner, the people depicted must have signed a model release, and owners of any private property depicted (including buildings, logos, trademarked items and more) must have signed a property release as well. If any of these are missing, the license could be invalid and thus, very unsafe to use.

Can you use stock photos to sell products?

Yes, with the appropriate license. The royalty free extended license, and the rights managed license, can cover the use of stock pictures on products for resale. Things like t-shirts and other apparel, coffee mugs or other physical products, etc.
But this right isn't included in all licenses so you must verify you have the right one.

Can you get in trouble for using stock photos?

Yes, if you use them wrong. You must abide by all the terms of the license you have, at all times, with your stock photos. Because infringing the license agreement and/or the copyright of the owner, the privacy right of the models, etc., can get you in trouble.
And let's not even talk about using stock photos without a valid license. That's just trouble from beginning to end.

Can you get sued for using stock photos?

Yes, this is why it's so important to fully understand how stock photos work and what the license you have covers.
Copyright infringement, image misuse, and other issues can be worthy of a lawsuit, with very variable financial costs.

Ivanna Attié
Ivanna Attié

I am Content Manager, Researcher, and Author in StockPhotoSecrets.com and Stock Photo Press and its many stock media-oriented publications. I am a passionate communicator with a love for visual imagery and an inexhaustible thirst for knowledge. Lucky enough to enter the wonderful world of stock photography working side-by-side with experienced experts, I am happy to share my research, insights, and advice about image licensing, stock photography offers, and the stock media industry with everyone in the creative community. My background is in Communication and Journalism, and I also love literature and performing arts.

  1. What if I am drawing the photo for an adult color book to sell and changing the photo a little? Change as in adding geometric shapes inside the images. I am not tracing their work, I am using their picture as a reference but some of the drawings I do look pretty close to the original. How much change would I need to make to be able to use my drawings without buying right to use it?

    • Hi Patti,

      What you describe is considered a reproduction of copyrighted images, and it’s prohibited by most stock photo agencies’ licensing terms. Meaning you cannot use drawings based on stock photos, even if you buy a license. There are some agencies that might allow it upon agreement, so in that case, you should contact the agencies directly.

  2. Nice article for learning

  3. Great article!
    Im currently working on the choosing pictures to go with the developing on an online curriculum that will teach a certain subject for first responders. The class will be a paying class with a certification of completion at the end . What kind of royal free stock pictures and or where can I go to purchase pictures for this kind of online teaching? There will be no printing, just on line teaching and a web site to promote the class.

    Thank you in advance,

    • Hi Kathy, it all depends on 1.) On the stock agency and the license of this stock agency 2.) On the use of the images within your product. For example if you would create a special course where the images are the main value, means the images are full page with very little text, that might need an extended license for most stock agencies. If the images are only a smaller part of your course and you are adding the value through text or anything else (own videos for example). Then the standard license (which is included in most stock agencies) should be good enough. Always check with the certain stock agency where you wanna buy from. Also regarding your question where to get those images, there are no real special stock agencies for such images. I doubt that you can find enough images in even larger stock agencies like Shutterstock with detailed enough “first responder” topics covered. I recommend to simply hire a photographer and create the images yourself, keep the copyright of them and use them forever in all your material. I hope that helps.

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