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 when it makes sense to buy editorial images, and when you need to buy a royalty-free, commercial license.

In a nutshell, editorial stock photos are cleared for informational and illustrative purposes only, and cannot be used for any commercial use. Royalty-Free stock photos, on the other hand, can be used for commercial purposes such as marketing and advertising, but not on resale/retail items.

Now let’s dig a bit further.

www.shutterstock.com editorial

How editorial images can be used

Editorial licenses are just that, images that can be used for editorial purposes only. Editorial purposes refer to informational and/or illustrative. Commonly, this covers publications where you use an image to illustrate an article, commentary, or written description. A magazine article, a blog entry, a news video, etc.

Editorial-licensed images can be used for:

  • Online publications: bloggers, digital news portals, etc.
  • Print publications: newspapers, magazines, editorials, newsletters
  • Non-commercial uses relating to events that are newsworthy or of general interest (in social media, for example)

When it comes to editorial imagery, understanding how not to use them is as important, if not more, than knowing the accepted uses. Because misusing editorial images can bring on a considerable amount of legal and financial trouble.

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

Every time your design relates to promoting a business or product or generating profits in any way, you will need a commercial-use license agreement. In microstock, that is usually a royalty-free license agreement.

The potential uses for royalty-free images are long and include marketing visuals and campaigns, adverts for all kinds of mediums, but also themes, templates, website images, social media graphics, etc.

If you are not sure about which license you need, you have two possible paths to take: you can ask the stock photo agency directly, or you can purchase an image with a royalty-free license just in case… which is what most stock photo sites will recommend doing if you’re not clear on the parameters of your intended use.

Why? Simply because royalty-free images cover both commercial and non-commercial usage, whereas editorial images only cover editorial, non-commercial purposes. It makes sense to get the most coverage possible to avoid any misuse and consequent legal problems.

www.shutterstock.com
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?

Besides the fact they are for illustrative purposes only, the curious stock photo buyer might find it useful to learn the reasons behind editorial photography being labeled as such, and how a stock photo agency decides whether a photo will be 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 (a model release, a property release, etc.)

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 label showing, but no release from the brand owners is included, then the photo will be for editorial use only.

Keep in mind, that editorial licensing has different contract models. Rights-managed editorial images have the usage terms tailored according to the desired use, and pricing accordingly. But most microstock sites have editorial licenses that are similar to royalty-free in the sense that they include a generic list of accepted uses, and for an affordable one-time fee (but they are NOT suitable for commercial use).

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 the 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.

One more: a regular person might take out their iPhone and document in pictures a breaking news event happening in front of them. Instead of sharing them with the world under the public domain, they might put them up for licensing, so other media outlets can use them to illustrate their coverage of said news. Since the person wouldn’t have any signed releases for people or private property depicted, but the content in the images would be considered newsworthy, the images could only be licensed under editorial terms.

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

Where can I buy editorial stock photos?

There are many stock photography agencies offering editorial collections. The same stock photo sites that sell royalty-free images tend to have a section for editorial-use-only material, that usually has to be bought separately, but still at very affordable prices.

  • Shutterstock Editorial is a very large catalog with millions upon millions of super relevant pictures, current and from archives.
  • iStock also has Editorial Use Only pictures available on their site, and they're very high-quality. You have an advanced filter option on their site, to see only Editorial images for any keyword you search.
  • Adobe Stock now has the Editorial collection with millions of high-quality images to help illustrate your story.
  • Getty Images Editorial segment excels in exclusive and very high-end editorial content, the kind that requires a press-only credential not many outlets can get. The prices are considerably higher for that reason, but it might be worth it for you if you want VIP images.
  • Dreamstime is another stock photo site that includes an Editorial collection, that they keep up to date with relevant newsworthy and public interest images.
  • 123RF stock agency also has Editorial Only images in their large catalog. You can search for them using their search bar, and all Editorial images are marked with an “E” icon plus details of Editorial-Only license in the image details.

Check out this licensing option and see if the stock photos that fall under could be useful for your editorial content.

Header image: © shutterstock.com/editorial

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.

49 Comments
  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.
      Best,
      Amos

  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?

    Thanks.

    • 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.

  21. Hi Amos,

    I want to know wich license I have to use for an exhibition.
    It will placed for 60 days in a public interior venue, and then it will be destroyed.

    Many thanks,
    Maria

    • Hi Maria, sorry for my late answer. I can not give you a final answer for this. I highly recommend you ask this the stock agency you want to buy from. I would say you would at least need standard, maybe even extended because you use the images in a “commercial” way. Editorial I doubt is working for it. All the best.

  22. This statement regarding the beer bottle is misleading “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.”

    It has nothing to do with the brand on the bottle. Is how the photographer is choosing to license the image. Editorial is for magazines, news, etc. Stock Royalty Free can be used for anything, even magazine, news etc. You cannot use an image that has an Editorial License on retail packaging or your company website to promote it; you use Stock Photos for that. Editorial Licenses will usually require you to provide the name of the magazine, # of issues, the time period it will be used and how big it will be used. Similar to the old “Rights Managed Photos” model. And you can’t re-use the Editorial in your following issue unless you get permission and pay again. Royalty Free you buy it and can use it for anything, except selling it or putting it on t-shirts and selling those. And you can’t give it to other people to use because the license is only for you or your client.

    • Thank You Juan, I agree that we could have made that example more clear. The point here is, that if you have a logo in the photos you make, you either are only able to sell them as editorial (also only limited for some locations and events) or you retouch it and remove it to be able to sell it as royalty free. I think your explanations are very valuable as well, so I keep it here for everyone to read ;-).

  23. Hi Amos

    I would like to:
    1. Buy an image from shutterstock
    2. Transform the image using special effects graphic software (shading / using different colors, adding other objects etc.)
    3. Sell the digital version of the transformed image as art.
    4. Print out the transformed image & sell it as art.
    5. Repeat steps 2 to 4 using different effects for the same base image therefor creating multiple art pieces from the same image.

    Question: can I do this?

    Many thanks for your support.

    • Hi Manny, since we are NOT Shutterstock representatives, answering your question is a bit complicated. While their license does allow you to alter the images, there are limitations and considerations related to how much you can alter them. Additionally, while their Enhanced license authorizes the use of images in products for resale (and your art pieces would fall in this category), they also have restrictions regarding selling digital imagery based on their content. We are not able to answer this concisely for you, so we highly recommend you to contact Shutterstock directly and clarify with them, before downloading or using any of their images in this way.

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