When can i use editorial images and when do i need to buy a royalty free licence

The Editorial license seems to live under a cloud of confusion, but it is really, really easy to understand the parameters of its use. 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 uses are places where there is an article, commentary, or 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 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 enable you to search only royalty-free images if you are still not clear on the uses of editorial licensed images and do not want to be in a position to decide on an editorial or royalty-free image.

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?

As a stock photography buyer, you only need to understand how you can use an editorial licensed image. The stock photo agency determines the buyer how the stock photo is licensed. For the curious buyer, here is the reason why editorial licenses are different and how a stock photo agency determines if a stock photo is issued with an editorial license or a royalty-free license.

These stock photos may contain identifiable brands, locations, or people without the proper legal releases, all things required in royalty-free licenses but not required in editorial licenses. Example. If a photographer takes a photo of a table and there happens to be a beer on the table and the brand is showing, this is for editorial use only. You might want to check out this post to know more about these licenses.

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 licence

Editorial Shot — Corona Extra Bottle of Beer
© Giorgio Fochesato / iStockphoto

If a photographer takes a photo of people playing on the beach and the photographer did not get signed releases from the people, this is for editorial use only. If the photographer took the same photo of a beer and did not have the brand in the photo, 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 licence

Beer on table — real stock photo not an editorial one

If the photographer took a photo of the people playing on the beach and was able to get a signed model release, this photo could be licensed as royalty-free.

The stock photography agencies that offer editorial licensed images are iStockphoto, 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

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!

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