What does Royalty Free mean?

Royalty-free is an often-misconstrued term that is actually very important to understand. Those who don't have an understanding of the word may find themselves in legal trouble after using an image in an unauthorized way.

What Royalty Free Is Not

Royalty-free is not copyright free. It is not free of charge. It is not even necessarily free of terms or restrictions.

What Royalty Free Is

Royalty-Free images are typically images that require a one-time fee for their use; the operative word being “use.” You are not given the photo to be yours exclusively, rather, you may be one of many that have acquired a royalty-free license to use the image. Royalty-free is exactly what it says – free from having to pay royalties on its use.

If you do a Google search for “royalty-free images,” you will see results for many of the big stock photography agencies such as, iStockphoto, BigStock Photo, Getty Images, Fotolia, 123rf, and Dreamstime.

Is Royalty-Free Right for Me?

If you plan to use the image many times, royalty-free might be great for you because it will save you money in licensing fees. The images are also generally priced based on the file size, so if you know you will only ever need it no bigger than 2″x2″, then you could buy the lowest sized image to fit that need.

It is possible that you will find a royalty-free image somewhere that is free. However, that doesn't mean that you don't still have an End User License Agreement or Terms of Use Agreement. The creator still retains rights to their image, regardless if it is free or not. Be sure to understand the terms of the license agreement at the time of purchase.

Search here for Royalty-Free Images now

Avatar of Amos Struck

I am a publisher and entrepreneur in the stock imagery field. I focus on providing knowledge and solutions for buyers, contributors and agencies, aiming at contributing to the growth and development of the industry. I am the founder and editor of Stock Photo Press, one of the largest networks of online magazines in the industry. I am the founder of Microstock Expo, the only conference dedicated to the microstock segment. I created several software solutions in stock photography like WordPress plugins. Plus I am a recurrent speaker at Photokina Official Stage, and an industry consultant at StockPhotoInsight. I am passionate about technology, marketing and visual imagery.


    • Dear Gail, thanks for your questions. We appreciate your contribution to childs with cancer and there are a lot of free images out there. Please feel free to pick from one of the free photos per week or check our interviews with the free photo ressource Stockvault or RGB Stock

      I hope this will help you to find great photos for the book you write. Keep up the good work.


  2. Hey I need help! Someone wants me to draw a spy girl holding a stick, so I searched up an image of a really good pose of a girl holding a stick. What I did is I try to use the same pose as her but not trace it. Is this ok? It says that the image is royalty-free stock photo. Will I get a copyrighted?

    • Hi there, no you can not use a stock photo as a template to draw something. I recommend to either shoot some photos yourself to draw afterward or ask some photographers for an exception.

  3. Reply Avatar of stephanie a beverungen
    stephanie a beverungen October 4, 2020 at 6:37 am

    If I submit to be contributor on stock sites, and my photos are royalty free, isn’t it still proper to share
    copyright information for the image? I’ve seen many of my images in magazines and on facebook with to photo credit. Seems wrong, will likely be withdrawing all my photos

    • It all depends on the usage, the license of the stock agency and your contract with the stock agency you are supplying images to. Usually, commercial usage does not need a credit (only valid for some countries). Editorial usage i.e. usage in newspapers does require copyright. I recommend asking the stock agencies you are supplying.

  4. Reply Avatar of G. Seizan Breyette
    G. Seizan Breyette June 29, 2021 at 1:46 pm


    Hi from Okinawa!

    Around 2000, I purchased “The Big Box of Art” (BBoA) 3500 images from Hemera. Afterward, Hemera was bought out by Jupiterimages, which is/was a subsidiary of Getty Images. I am now writing a series of children’s books and poetry, and wish to use some of the “royalty-free” BBoA images and clipart for my book illustrations. I purchased a license and registration for the program when I bought it, but now I’m unsure if I am allowed to use the images in my books or not.

    I contacted Getty about this, and the response was “the data is no longer what we sell”. I was advised to find creative royalty-free images on their Getty Images website, but the licensing cost per image is rather steep…

    Jupiterimages and Hemera seem to be defunct companies. That sort of leaves the usage information in limbo…

    Any idea concerning this? I purchased a license (I still have the license number) plus I have seen some of the same vector clipart and a few of the same photos in other clipart collections.

    • Hi, this is a very interesting question and I hope I can help you out. First of all I recommend to reach out again to Getty Images to clarify. I can not speak for them nor for any other stock agency. Then second you should check the license terms of the collection you bought. I hope you can still find this document (check the CD). These are the terms under which you have bought the image licenses. If this license terms let you use the images forever (check kindly) then I don’t see any issues. If there is nothing about the time period you can use them, check again with the now content owner (most likely Getty). I hope that makes it more clear.

  5. Hi Amos, looks like I’m out of luck with this…

    Borderbund, which publishes the famous Printmaster series (Printmaster Gold, Silver, Platinum, Deluxe, etc.) includes the following with their product. I understand that this is a very common License Agreement used by most graphics and clip-art distributors.

    In it we find (beside the usual copyright information on the software itself):

    All content contained in the Software, including, but not limited to characters, designs, text, photos, clip art, fonts, graphics, templates, sounds, videos and projects contained in the Software (the “Properties”) are either owned by or used under license by Riverdeep and are protected under trademark, copyright, and other applicable laws. Any and all unauthorized use of the Properties is strictly prohibited. You may not sell any Property or any item containing or carrying a copy of any Property. Subject to the restrictions described below, you may make copies of the Properties for use in home entertainment and projects, for educational purposes, in advertisements, public or private presentations, business communications, multimedia presentations, and other similar uses. For example, subject to the restrictions described below, you may use the Properties to create posters, stationery, greeting cards, signs, invitations, calendars, reports, catalogs, brochures and newsletters.
    (Among the restrictions we find these:)
    Sell any item on which any Property is copied or otherwise printed.

    So, it’s pretty clear that I can use BBoA for fun school projects and newsletters, etc., as I have been, but not for any item that it being sold — including publications such as books, etc.

    Apparently it doesn’t matter if the company is defunct or not, unless the present owners of the software specifically states that the Property (artwork) has been released to the public domain and/or is free for commercial use without attribution.

    So, last night I found several sites that offer “free for commercial use” and attribution-free clip-art. I’ll just have to spend some time looking through them and finding something equal to the great stuff in the BBoA program, I guess.

    Oh, there is a function on the BBoA program CDs for on-line help, but it’s inoperable as the site (and company) no longer exists. I wrote to Getty again and hope to hear something today or later this week. But despite that the program seems to be orphaned, I don’t think the images have simply been released to Public Domain, etc.

    Thanks for your help and suggestions. For any others who might be on the verge of publishing, I hope this helps with similar illustration copyrights etc. questions.

    • Hi Gordon, I suggest to have a lawyer look over these terms. I can not give a proper answer because I’m not a lawyer nor do I have access to the full license details. But I think you might be able to create a print from the graphics, but please check that with a lawyer who has more in-depth knowledge and actually have full access to the license terms.

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