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.

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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 about 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). Means, 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. 

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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. 

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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.

32 Comments
  1. I AM WRITING CHILDREN’S BOOKS FOR THE PURPOSE OF CONTRIBUTING TO CHILDHOOD CANCER. I CANNOT AFFORD AN ARTIST, CAN I USE PICTURES FROM THE COMPUTER FREE OF CHARGE? WHAT IF I ALTER THEM A LITTLE, WOULD THAT MAKE A DIFFERENCE? PLEASE ANSWER ME ASAP. THANK YOU

    • 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.

      Amos

  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

    Amos,

    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:)
    ~~~~~
    YOU ARE NOT PERMITTED TO:
    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.

  8. Hello Amos,
    I recently downloaded a few RF photos from shutterstock. I want to start painting and then selling prints after I’m done. How does that work by using for example, combining bits and pieces of 3 pictures into a single painting? I’m not making an exact copy (or painting in this case) of a photo, rather it being a collaboration. Do I run into any issues here?

    • Hi Scooter, that’s a question which we are getting quite often. Honestly, go into Flickr or any other free photo community. Find a photo you love and then contact the photographer if you are allowed to paint it or paint parts of it. The RF (Royalty-Free) license is not designed for re-painting or painting parts of it. It is made for people to use images in advertisements, social media, and on their websites. You will make more new friends and happy photographers which you can share your work on the free platforms. I hope that helps.

  9. Hi Amos,

    I created a calendar for a nonprofit and used/bought a license for a few faces from stock. I added the faces in with other images that I created. Am I allowed to sell the calendars for fundraising? Or is that not an option?

    • Hi, thank you for your question. I general this all depends on the source of the images i.e. where you bought them from. Most stock agencies have different licenses and some of these licenses might! allow the usage of images for non-profit. But most agencies might force you to buy an extended license because in the end you are earning money with the images (on the calendar), even if this is for fundraising. I recommend reaching out to the specific agency and ask them particularly.

  10. Something else…

    Can an image accepted by an agency be submitted to a different agency?

  11. Hello Amos,

    I plan to start a puzzle business and would like to buy some RF pictures. Is this possible. I read your earlier message on extended licensing for profit making. Will this be applicable here? Can you please elaborate on this.

    • Hi Uma, this is quite easy and also easy to understand. If you wanna earn money with the image directly = always extended. If the image is used to “advertise” for your puzzle business and not directly used to earn money with it (the image) then standard is most likely the way to go. I hope that helps.

  12. I don’t know if the Royalty Free License is right for me

    I want to use images on oracle cards (kind of like tarot cards) which I sell.

    • Hi Sheryl, I can only offer you an orientative answer on this. I think you would need an Extended license because what you intend is to use the images in products for resale. However, the nature of your product (tarot-like cards) could potentially fall under the sensitive use clause that most licenses have that would not allow you to use the images for this. So, my advice is to contact the stock agency(s) directly to ask if your intended use is accepted by their terms and to verify that an Extended license would suffice. Hope this helps!

  13. I have a question about Royalty Free in General

    Am I able to draw/paint from a royalty free image from shutterstock and then sell my drawing as prints/cards?

    • Hi Jodie, we are getting this message quite often, and honestly I can’t fully answer it. Usually, you can not create a “copy” of an image and re-sell it. Some stock agencies might allow this under their extended licenses agreement (which also means higher costs). For Shutterstock I can not answer this question, sorry. I recommend to reach out to them directly and ask them this exact same question. On the other hand I highly recommend to just ask some photographers who are offering free images if you are allowed to paint their image. Why would you want to buy a stock photo which is made for advertisement and paint it? Just curious ;-).

  14. I have a question about Royalty Free in General

    Hi, about copyright. If I buy a picture can I put it inside a page of a kids book im making? Copies will sell and that image has an appearence inside.

    • Usually, it is no problem to use an image in a book (also a kid book) as long as the image is only part of the content. You just need to make sure that you 1.) are below the print-run the license includes (usually between 300k and 500k prints). 2.) the image is not the MAIN part of the book i.e. image-book only without any additional content or text. If in doubt also always ask the stock agency.

  15. I need more Information about Royalty-Free Images

    I want to use an image for a book introduction. Who do I cite?

    • Hi Eleanor, the specifics of image attribution can vary from one agency to the other, so you need to read the license agreement of the stock photo you intend to use (this information is commonly included in their terms), and even better contact the agency directly to verify. But in general terms, stock photo agencies require that you cite the agency and the author of the image. Please remember that to use a royalty-free image in a book introduction you need to have a valid license for said image.
      Hope this helps!

  16. I don’t know if the Royalty Free License is right for me

    Your explanation of what royalty free licensing is and is not is VERY useful. Nowhere do I read anything here about whether this kind of licensing is relevant/possible for using copyrighted photos in publishing a book. More specifically, I would like to use several photos from LIFE magazine in a book that I have written and will soon be published by a non-profit college press. If a microstock company has such photos, may a subscription be used to publish them in a book?

    • Hi Henk, sure happy to help someone who is thankful for our content. I recommend to first understand how the usage of images works. Royalty-Free images are usually images to be used for advertisement and of course in books or brochures. What you are looking for are not Royalty-Free images, you are looking to get images for editorial content or context i.e. from LIFE magazine. That is not what most stock agencies (especially not the cheaper ones) can deliver. Those images need a special permission either to be used commercially (advertisement) or maybe also for editorial usage (paid or non-paid do not matter here). I recommend to reach out to them directly and ask for permission for non-profit usage. Hope that helps. You could also go ahead and get editorial images from companies like Shutterstock or Getty Images but you must be certain that you use those images in the correct way (and they are not cheap either). Regards Amos

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