What Does Royalty Free Mean?

Royalty-Free is one of the most popular (if not the most popular) stock photo licenses of today. It’s the default license offered at most online stock photo agencies, too. 

However, the license’s name often leads to misunderstandings and misconceptions over what it is, and particularly about its cost. 

Such mistakes can result in considerable legal trouble when using stock photos, all the more in commercial use, so it is very important to understand the meaning of royalty-free and the licensing terms correctly.

What Royalty Free Is Not

Let's first and foremost clarify some of the most common misconstructions around the term “royalty free”:

Royalty-free is not copyright-free – There is still a copyright owner involved, who is licensing a right to use their intellectual property, but not selling ownership. Copyright law still applies.

Royalty-free is not free of charge – The image license has a price, that you must pay in order to use the copyrighted material. It is not a free-to-use license.

Royalty-free is not free of terms or restrictions – The license terms are to be followed in order to make legal use of the stock images under this contract.

What Royalty Free Is

Now, let's have a look at what, in fact, means Royalty-Free when talking media licensing:

Royalty-Free license is very flexible – When you buy a royalty-free photo, you get a battery of usage rights that is not restricted by time period, location, or medium. You can use the same image over and over, in different projects and places, for as long as you want. It enables use for commercial purposes, and in things like social media, YouTube videos, billboards, adverts, and more. 

Royalty-Free images are a one-time payment – You pay a unique, flat fee, and you never have to pay for the photo again. The name literally means you are exempted from paying royalties, this is, to pay recurrent fees for using an image. This, combined with the low pricing most stock photo sites offer, makes them very affordable. 

Royalty-Free images are non-exclusive – RF licenses do not grant you exclusive rights over the image (like Rights Managed license can allow). Meaning, others can license the same content and use it at the same time as you. However, you can alter the images as much as you wish to make them look more unique, and it’s the fact they can be licensed over and over that makes the pricing so affordable. 

Royalty-Free photos do not require attribution – The license terms exempt you from having to credit the author and/or the stock photo agency when you use their images, which makes using them a lot easier and also makes it less evident that it’s a stock photo. 

Royalty-Free images are high-quality – Most stock photo sites that sell RF images have them in high resolution, suitable for professional use. 


These features are behind the immense popularity of royalty-free photos, like the ones you can find in Shutterstock, iStock, Photocase, or our very own Stock Photo Secrets Shop. 

They’re immediately available, they’re suitable for commercial use, and they’re very budget-friendly. What’s more to ask?

Is Royalty-Free Right for Me?

A royalty-free license is ideal in many cases, but ultimately only you can know if it’s the right option for your needs. 

In general, this is a good match if you: 

  • Plan to use an image many times, in different designs – RF license will save you money in licensing fees
  • Need the images for commercial purposes, such as marketing and advertising – Royalty-free pictures are vetted for this use and thus much safer than alternatives such as free stock photos in the public domain.
  • Don’t want to bother with limitations regarding time, placement, and geographical location when you use the photos – A royalty-free license erases these concerns.
  • Want to be able to use the image without attribution – Something entirely impossible with free content, such as images under creative commons licenses. 

If you think your intended use fits into these criteria, then you should definitely consider going for a royalty-free license when it comes to your stock photos. 

Just make sure you fully understand the license terms and all they imply, to ensure you are using the images safely. 

Search here for Royalty-Free Images now

Avatar of Amos Struck

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.

  6. I would like to copy an eagle head and reproduce it so i can sell it ( royalty free). What do I have to do to enable me to sell it with out breaking any laws

    • I recommend shooting an image of an eagle head yourself and then you have all the rights to use or re-produce it. Otherwise, you would always breach the copyright of the photo you are copying from. An alternative would be to ask a photographer if he would give you written permission to re-produce the image and sell it. I hope that helps.

  7. Hi Amos,

    I bought a RF image for a logo I created for my company a while back, do I still have any rights to it since I created the logo and in particular the RF image I purchased? Even though the logo hasn’t been copyrighted yet, do I still have any rights to the image as my own?

    • Hi Trenea, I monst cases images bought with a normal royalty-free license do not include the rights to use them in a logo. Most major agencies explicitly decline this usage as logo. I suggest you check it with the agency you bought it from (or check their license agreement). I would not use any RF image for my logo, I rather go to platforms to order a individual one or hire a graphic designer. This is also the case if you don’t copyright the logo (usage of the logo might be the same in most countries). Disclaimer: I’m not a lawyer. Always check with the agency you bought from.

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