When can I use editorial images and when do I need to buy a royalty-free license

The Editorial license for stock photos seems to live under a cloud of confusion, but it is really, really easy to understand the parameters of its use.

In a nutshell, editorial images can not be used for any commercial use; Royalty-Free stock photos can be used for commercial purposes, but not on resale/retail items.

How editorial images can be used

Editorial licenses are just that, images that can be used for editorial purposes only. Editorial purposes refer to publications when you use an image to illustrate an article, commentary, or written description.

Editorial-licensed images can be used for:

  • Blogs
  • Editorial purposes: newspapers, magazines, editorials, newsletters
  • Non-commercial uses relating to events that are newsworthy or of general interest

Editorial-Use-Only files cannot be used for:

  • Any commercial use
  • Any advertorial use (sections or supplements featuring brand or product names, or sections or supplements for which you receive a fee from a third party advisor or sponsor)

When do I need to purchase a Royalty Free Licensed stock photo?

If you will be using the image for any commercial (yet non-resale) purposes, you will need a royalty-free image. The list is long and includes themes, templates, marketing campaigns, website images, etc. If you are not sure, either ask the stock photo agency or purchase an image with a royalty-free license just to cover your company. Most stock agency websites that sell editorial images will recommend you to search only royalty-free images if you are still not clear on the uses of editorial licensed images and don't want to risk any misuse, with the consequent legal problems.

Heads up! Shutterstock now offers Asset Assurance, a service in which their editorial and legal teams work with customers to clear rights to use editorial content in commercial-oriented projects!

Why are editorial licenses different?

The main requirement to use editorial images is to understand how you can and cannot use them. But for the curious stock photo buyer, this is the reason why editorial-licensed images are different, and how a stock photo agency decides whether a photo is issued under an editorial or a royalty-free license.

For a photo to be used commercially, under a royalty-free license, it is necessary that all the visible people, identifiable brands, logos, and trademarked items, as well as locations and private property, are properly authorized for said use through legal release documents.

When images contain one or more of the above-listed subjects without a legal release, said image can only be used for editorial purposes. For example, if a photographer takes a photo of a busy table, and there happens to be a beer bottle on it with its brand showing, but no release from the brand owners is included, then the photo will be for editorial use only.

An example of an editorial photo from iStockphoto

istockphoto 16313171 corona extra bottle of beer > When can I use editorial images and when do I need to buy a royalty-free license
Editorial Shot — Corona Extra Bottle of Beer
© Giorgio Fochesato / iStockphoto

But if the photographer took the same photo of a beer on the table, but the bottle wasn't branded, it would be a royalty-free licensed photo.

beer on table > When can I use editorial images and when do I need to buy a royalty-free license
Beer on table — real stock photo not an editorial one

Another example: if a photographer takes a photo of people playing on the beach, and they do not get signed releases from said people, this picture will be for editorial use only. If the photographer is able to get model releases signed by all the subjects portrayed, this photo could be licensed as royalty-free.

You might want to check out this post to know more about these licenses.

The stock photography agencies that offer editorial licensed images are Shutterstock, iStock, Dreamstime, and 123RF. Check out this licensing option and see if the stock photos that fall under could be useful for your editorial content.

Image: © diego cervo / iStockphoto

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.

  1. Good article, as it helps clarify the difference between the two. This was a long time coming, the ability to use editorial images.

  2. Can editorial images be used on a digital magazine cover?

    • Hello Bernie,

      thanks for your question. Usually a editorial image can be used on a magazine cover, if digital or printed. It can not be used in a commercial way i.e. to create a advertisement etc.

      I hope that helps.

  3. Hi Amos,

    Well isn’t a magazine a commercial source? I mean, you pay money for it right? I’m a bit confused. Also, if I have a digital and print magazine + website, especially if it’s a non-mainstream magazine, not just news, but let’s say, informative subjects, like science, spirituality, technology, in what category do I fall, editorial and/or commercial?

    • What if you want to have a video playing on your landing page of a residential real estate website. Showing buildings like the hard Rock guitar in ft Lauderdale. Would this be commercial or editorial?

      • Hi Ivan, according to my understanding you can NOT use any other brand or copyrighted brand/company/footage in your commercial usage, like on your homepage. You would need to get written permission from the copyright owner of the brand. So this would not be an editorial usage and I think you can not use the video you want to.

    • Hi Andrei, I can understand that this might be confusing. Let me try to clarify this with a definition from iStock. They explain it like this: “Editorial Use” means that an image is used as a descriptive visual reference – an example of a specific person, place, thing or event.”

      A commercial usage would be necessary if you i.e. create a advertisement to be printed in a magazine or if use it in any commercial way to show i.e. your own products or services.

      It’s pretty easy to check: A.) If the image is only there to be a descriptive small part for an article (it do not depend where it’s published) then you usually can use a editorial license (which comes with more restrictions than a commercial one).
      B.) If you need to use the image for an ad, a poster a flyer a banner or anything related to a commercial usage i.e. for your brand or product or company you need a commercial license.

      To explain it visually: You are writing an article about the latest changes at Facebook. You could use a editorial image of Facebooks website or Headquarter or anything related. But if you would create a Ad for your own business to tell that you are on Facebook now you would need to use a commercial license and you will be actually not allowed to use i.e. a headquarter photo of Facebook in your ad.

      Hope that clarifies it better. Sorry but it’s not a easy topic.

      • Thanks for your quick answer Amos, you have the biggest Like on Facebook from me. So every photo, even photos that are, let’s say, design in different graphic software, like digital art, without representing a brand, or social event, fall under the Editorial category? What about the cover of a magazine, if you put your logo on the photo cover? There are some free stock websites that presents photos under the Creative Common license public domain (cc0). Although they mention that no attribution is required, if you reed their Terms of Use, the will say something like: “Certain Images may be subject to additional copyrights,
        property rights, trademarks etc. and may require the consent of a third
        party or the license of these rights…” So in this case I think it would be safer to mention the source, just in case….right?

        • Hi Andrei, you are welcome but I need to say that you are mixing up things a lot here. It’s fairly easy: Editorial Images: You can not just slap a logo on them and put it on the cover of a magazine. This would require a commercial image license (check out the license agreement first) but you could probably use a editorial image of, let’s say, Facebook headquarters if the cover story is about Facebook (still different license limitations apply here which you need to check with the agency you are buying from). Creative commons are a totally other type of license and they (usually) need to be used or credited completely differently. Hope that helps!

  4. Hi, I am writing a book about my great-uncle a famous fighter, and some photos I want to use are from the 1920’s and appeared in newspapers at the time. They are listed as editorial use only. May I use them now? Thanks

    • Hi Kristine, I would ask the newspaper who shot the photos and how owns the copyright. Sometimes, even “old” and images with expired copyright might have a extended copyright on them. That is the most safest way to use them. Hope that helps. (I’m not a lawyer nor do I know all the copyright laws in your country).

  5. Hi … I’m looking for historic images from the 1930’s for a printed mural in a commercial establishment … can I use Royalty Free images or do I need an artist release?

    • It’s hard to say since I don’t know all the exact details but I recommend to only use royalty-free stock photos for this usage. It do not sound like an editorial usage which is usually only allowed in blogs, magazines, books etc.

  6. Thanks for explaining this simply. I get confused where it comes to “when to use which photos”, which is funny, since I do stock photos myself. It’s been a while since I’ve tried to sell them, but I’ve been working on my website and thinking about selling them again. Since I take them and make them, might as well.

    It’s the fact that many blogs are selling something that throws me off. But I get it the way you put it. If it’s advertising something you are selling, it’s not ok to use a royalty-free editorial photo, use a royalty-free stock photo.

    So, if I am writing a blog post about “Being Cool in the Summer Heat” for a website that sells summer shirts, and I need to make a reference to someone drinking Icees, is it OK for me to post a royalty-free editorial photo of an Icee if the shirt is not being sold on that page?

    This brings the Icee itself into question. I will look to see if you have more articles in this area, because I am very interested in this subject, and have trouble finding easy-to-read articles that explain this well. They often seem written by poorly paid bloggers who don’t really know what they are talking about.

    Thanks again! Off to do some research. 🙂
    You may hear more from me.

    • You need to see editorial photos more like photos for news or actual things happening in your town, area or industry. Thats why most blogs use royalty-free stock photos instead of editorial photos because they can 1.) Edit them if needed 2.) Have less limitations how and where to use them 3.) less issues afterwards. Hope that helps.

  7. Hi Amos, interesting article and something that I’ve struggled to completely grasp in the past. Say for example I run a commercial football website, ie I have a website based around the world of football and on this website I have various adverts and promotions in amongst the content.

    However, the website itself mainly consists of various news articles, either match reports or injury news or tranfer speculation – would it be valid to use editorial images in this case, just in the body of the news content and for links through to those particular news articles elsewhere on the site? And the same I assume for editorial posts about football related content?

    If yes, then that’s great to hear! Would this then not apply if a particular news article is a paid for article, or an advertorial? Is it also all about the placement of the editorial images? For example on a sponsored post, in the sidebar of the page could it contain an editorial image of Messi linking through to a news article about Messi?

    Sorry for the many queries, hopefully they’re clear in their context though!

    • Hi Bobby, thank you for your question. It sounds like you are more an editorial user than a commercial one. To understand the different let’s show an example: You create a banner for your website which includes football pictures and you use this banner to advertise for your service or anything else you produce, that is commercial usage. Editorial usage is more like a news magazine usage, so without seeing your website I can not tell 100% but it sounds like you have news about the football industry. That would let you use an editorial picture as well. If you would have sponsored posts, they are commercial right? They are more like an advertisement for a company so I would say no editorial usage! I hope that makes it more clear for you!

  8. Hi, I run a Greek travel site and want to use some editorial images on my site to show my visitors what the places I’m describing are like. To me this sounds like perfectly acceptable editorial use. Is that right?

    Does it matter if the page in question has adverts on it, does that change it from non-commercial to commercial?

    Thanks, Alan.

    • Hi Alan, I’m sorry but that do NOT sound like a editorial usage of an image. You are clearly selling travel services to your customers and you are using these images to sell your travel services. Thats why you need a commercial license for sure. If you would be a news magazine about some news on a Greek iland, than the usage might be editorial.

  9. Hi I get that editorial photos can’t be used as commercially. But how about when I upload commercial photos? can commercial photos be used as editorial? If that’s the case, it would better to upload everything as commercial (if possible) so that it includes commercial and editorial? Thanks in advance.

    • Hi Kevin, exactly! This way no one can say later that you have misused an editorial image in a commercial way. Just use normal commercial licenses images. But make sure to use copyright captions nevertheless.

  10. I have a question, Pixabay says their images of people are for editorial use Therefore, can I use these pics to create posts for my company for instagram or facebook and twitter. The posts are informative about topics, for eg, a pic of a girl with 2 color eyes, and explaining about this, its an ophthalmologist, so its eye trivia

    • Hi there, it sounds like you would use those images to advertise for your ophthalmologist service. You would need to buy images with royalty-free licensing rights. I do not recommend to use any images with visible people from free websites. They are NOT safe to use. Images are so cheap these days, simply buy them and use them accordingly.

  11. Hi,

    Thanks for this article. I’m not sure if i can use editorial use images on a commercial website of a company in a section which includes news articles about various companies (not advertorials) for the purpose of illustrating the subject of the articles. This use is for a commercial company (but not for advertising etc.) but is within news articles. Any thoughts?


    • I think you answered the question yourself. You are want to use editorial images on your COMMERCIAL website to talk about the market. I’m not a lawyer nor can I speak for any other stock agencies and their license agreements, but I would say this is not possible.

  12. Hi Amos,

    My company are making a regional PDF magazine. We would like to make a page about famous people from that region. Would it be OK to use editorial images of celebrities? We’re not using them to promote our company or sell a product. The magazine is free to the public and companies pay to advertise in the magazine.

    Kind regards

    • Hi Jamie, it all depends on the usage and where you will buy the editorial images. This is not easy to answer, unfortunately. I assume you (as a business) are publishing this magazine to get your name out? You also earn money from companies to be included, so you earn money from it. On the other hand it seems like it is similar usage like a newspaper. I recommend you contact the stock agency you want to buy from beforehand and ask them the same question, just to be certain.

  13. Hi Jamie,

    I am producing a website as not for profit venture for bridge players. There is no monetisation. There will be newsworthy elements, and information on the game etc, educational info etc There will be a number of links to Youtube videos, but not embedded. The image one sees on the website is of the opening frame of the video clip though. Can you comment ? Is this likely to cause problems ? I also need some decent images to brighten up the site and I am happy to pay for editorial photos. Any advice would be good.

    • Hi Dave, this still do not sound like a real editorial usage. Imagine you are a newspaper or a magazine with relevant news and articles whats happen in the world. Thats what editorial usage is meant for. The usage you are describing is commercial (even if you are not making money). Therefore I recommend to not use editorial image licenses but rather just normal stock photo royalty-free licenses. You can of course ask at every editorial stock agency website and they might allow your usage as well. I hope that helps.

  14. Hi there – We are planning to do a 3D model of a room for a trade show that has now gone virtual. Can we use an editorial image to represent the surroundings – what you see when you look outside the window – not anything inside the building?

    We would not have our logo on it or be selling it, it would just show that we are, for example, in NYC.

    Thanks so much for the help.

    • Hi Maggie, are you using the images in a newspaper or a online-news magazine? If not then your usage is most likely commercial. You are showing that 3D model to earn money at the end, even if you don’t sell the content/product right now. Editorial is more like a newsworthy usage than a commercially usage. Why you just not buy a commercial image? Whats the issue with buying one?

  15. Hello Amos!

    What if I’m using editorial images for textbook but I am planning to sell those textbooks?

    • No in most cases you can not. Some agencies like Alamy might allow it but you always need to ask them directly about that usage. One misconception is, that “Editorial Usage” means all usage with text – that is not the case with most stock agencies. Editorial use is more like a use in a newsworthy editorial publication i.e. a newspaper, a blog about your city etc.. I hope this makes it more clear.

  16. Hi Amos,
    Can I use an editorial image in our company’s annual report and other marketing material? I have been using royalty-free all this time.

    • I think you answered your question yourself. You have done it correctly by using royalty-free images. You are using them to present your company and making “marketing”. Just only because there is text next to the image DO NOT MEAN that it is editorial usage. You did well!

  17. Hi Amos,

    Thanks for your post and responses i think you’re helping a lot of people here. I have a few questions that have bothered me for quite a while.

    I can see companies who use editorial images on book covers, how do they manage this?

    I’m a rival company to them, and only use non-ediotrial images with our book/ebooks and content.

    • Hi Ben, thank you very much. We try our best to help in the jungle of stock photography. Regarding your question. It might depend on the source of the images (where they buy it). Maybe some stock agencies do allow editorial usage on book covers. Or they have even got an individual license from the stock agency for this usage. It can also be that they simply ignore the fact that this is editorial and the usage of the image on the book cover (with editorial license) is just simply the wrong usage. That happens sometimes of course as well. I think Alamy might allow some broader usage. But I’m honestly not so deep into editorial licenses in general. So you better always ask the stock agency directly where you want to purchase from. I hope that helps.

  18. Hey Amos!

    I have an article on how to choose the correct product based on the application method in my annual catalog. The page has no logos, no company name, no mention of specific products or recommendation of what to buy.

    With this being a product catalog, can I use images I shot but never asked for a release at the time in an editorial fashion within this single article that is inside the catalog?

    • Hi Chris, I’m sorry but your question is very confusing. If you have worked for a company while shooting those photos, they might own the rights to them. You need to know yourself what rights did you give to your clients at that time. Unfortunately, with this limited amount of data, I can not give you a proper answer.

  19. Hi,

    Thank you for this article -even with all the great advice, I’m still confused. I’m writing a book that features famous cats in history – both real and fictional, but the book itself will be non-fiction and will feature a small, factual paragraph or two about each cat. As some of these cats are from Disney and other well-known sources, would the photo of the cat be considered editorial, as it is simply a visual image of the cat in question, or is it commercial because I’m selling the book? None of the photos would be used in promotional materials, they would simply be in the book as a visual representation.

    • Hi Deborah, first of all I’m not a lawyer and therefore I can not give you any legal advice. In general editorial images are limited to newsworthy articles or articles/blogs which are in the general interest of people. I really like how Shutterstock writes it in their license: “An “editorial use” for the purposes of this license shall be a use made for descriptive purposes in a context that is newsworthy or of human interest and expressly excludes commercial uses such as advertising or merchandising.” I find this explanation is pretty clear. So if you would write an article in a newspaper about those cats, I reckon that this is editorial usage. I’m actually not 100% about the usage in your book when you are selling the book for profit. That question you should ask your legal adviser and I recommend doing that before you use any Disney or other well-known figures. Sorry that I can not help you more on this one. Regards Amos

  20. Hi Amos,

    I work for a company that makes training videos. We often talk about a car part on a specific model or a type of car and need to have images of the cars we are discussing.

    Are we able to use editorial images of the cars we are using in the training?

    for example, In a safety video on electric cars, we mention that many manufacturers have Electic cars that look identical to other cars in the range. for example VW Golf GTI and an E-Golf. so we would show images of each of the models as a reference.

    These training videos are all part of an online training website and so can not be seen unless you purchase the training. What are your thoughts on this?

    also if editorial images are not allowed, would we still be able to use these images of the cars if we take photos of the cars ourselves? or would the images then fall under editorial even though we own them?

    • Hi Simon, interesting question. Just to keep in mind I’m not a lawyer nor do I speak for any of the stock agencies you might buy from. But I don’t think this is editorial usage. You are using an image or video in a paid course. But maybe I’m wrong and some of the agencies might allow the usage under their license. I highly recommend asking.

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