The Shutterstock License Explained: Do’s and Don’ts of Shutterstock Images

Shutterstock is one of the most popular and successful stock photo agencies for a reason: we all love Shutterstock images. But, do we all fully know and understand the Shutterstock license? 

Today we are going deep into Shutterstock’s license agreement. We’ll explain all their terms and give you all the relevant info about them. 

This way, you’ll not only make sure you’re using Shutterstock photos correctly but also that you are getting every possible benefit from them, too! Considering they make for some of the best images for marketing purposes, it's definitely worth your time!

Let’s get started, shall we? 

The Basics of this Shutterstock License Breakdown

Before we go into the actual fine print, let’s revise the principles of Shutterstock’s usage agreement, which you can find here, to start from an informed base. 

We'll preface this by stating since Shutterstock.com is one of the best stock photo sites of today, and have been consistently at top of the stock photo industry since their launch in 2003, we believe their licensing terms are not only worth knowing for the sake of using Shutterstock content, but also because they are an example of a stock media licensing agreement that inspires those of many other agencies.

We hope that reading this will help you not only understand how Shutterstock operates and also why they charge what they charge for their service.

For more information about the costs of Shutterstock licenses, do check out our in-depth article with everything you need to know about Shutterstock pricing!

It’s a Royalty Free License

Shutterstock operates on the base of a Royalty-Free license agreement, meaning the fee you pay for an image (whether it is via a stock photo subscription or an image pack) is the one and only fee you’ll ever pay for it. Once licensed and paid for, you will not be required to pay royalties for the use of said image ever again.

Keep in mind the same Royalty Free license applies to any images you download with the new Shutterstock Free Trial, which makes them even more valuable, as most other free photos from the web are under Creativer Commons or under the public domain, but Shutterstock's are all verified and policed.

It’s a One-Seat, Personal License

In Shutterstock, you can find multi-seat licenses for teams and also corporate agreements for companies and brands. However, the most common is the personal, individual license: one customer uses their account to license (download) and uses photos in various projects. This is the license option we are analyzing here today. 

We’re Covering the Commercial Use License

Shutterstock has two license types available, albeit both royalty-free. One is for using the images for commercial purposes: marketing, advertising, branding and all other uses linked to business activities, looking to generate profit. The other is for Editorial Use Only and has a different set of rights and limitations. If you're in doubt as for which license you need, we got your back with our article explaining when to use a commercial license and when an editorial one. 

Today we are focusing on the former (Commercial Use License), as it’s the one that concerns to most creatives and business owners reading us. – If this is you, have a look at our guide with 102 Expert Tips for Creating Visual Content, it's a goldmine!

If you’re a publisher, keep reading though! The Commercial license has applications for blogs, e-books and print publishing too. 

However, you can also check this article that explains Editorial stock images, and read about where to find the best editorial images online, you’ll find Shutterstock Editorial is a very good provider! 

We’re Centering on the Image License

Shutterstock is a high-quality stock media service for creative professionals, thus it offers more than just still images. They have dedicated libraries for stock footage and stock audio, and each of these media formats has their respective licensing terms. 

In this article, we are studying the Image License as stock photos and stock images are still the number one media creatives are after and the most extensively used across platforms and mediums. Speaking of which, you should check out our breakdown of the standard image sizes for marketing materials, we have all the different platforms' standards detailed!

Shutterstock Licensing Terms Explained


DISCLAIMER: This is a non-official guide to Shutterstock License. We are not lawyers and this is our personal interpretation of their license. This guide is only informal and non-binding. If you have any question or need help, please contact Shutterstock directly.

Alright, it’s time to get down to business. This is what the terms in Shutterstock License mean: 

#1. Non-Exclusive, Non-Transferrable, Worldwide, Perpetual

Shutterstock License 1 > The Shutterstock License Explained: Do’s and Don’ts of Shutterstock Images

This is the core of the agreement you subscribe to when you download an image from Shutterstock, so it’s very important to understand it fully. 

DO'S:

It is as clear as it can be: you can edit, or alter, and use the licensed image however you want, anywhere you want, in as many projects as you wish, forever. Just keep in mind others can license and use the same image at the same time as you, too. 

DON'TS:

You cannot resell, gift or transfer the licensed image to anyone for its use as-is. This license applies to you only, and you’re solely responsible for its use. 


Note: You CAN use Shutterstock images in client work –say, if you’re a designer creating visuals for a customer– under the Standard license no problem. But what you give the client must be the final, edited work, not the stock image just as you downloaded it from the agency. More info on this, on this dedicated guide on using stock photos in client work. 

Also, there is a series of usage limitations that you must abide by, which we’ll explain further along. 

#2. Standard Image License 

Shutterstock License 2 > The Shutterstock License Explained: Do’s and Don’ts of Shutterstock Images

Now we’re getting specific. This details the “Do’s” we just overviewed, clearly laying out the many possibilities in Shutterstock images for businesses and creatives, but it also implies some important “Don’ts” that were unknown until this point. 

DETAILED DO'S:

Digital uses include all main purposes like websites, online and mobile advertising, social media, email marketing, applications, software, digital publishing and more. There are no restrictions on the number of views/visitors.

Prints, such as packaging, business stationery, POS advertising, advertising in physical publications, billboards, etc. is limited to 500,000 copies. 

A special case is that of film, video, television series, advertisements and video productions for online streaming platforms (such as YouTube or Vimeo). Where you are allowed to use Shutterstock photos, but as long as the production budget does not exceed $10,000. 

This is an interesting point in Shutterstock License, as other agencies tend to set up a limitation based on the number of views or visits, rather than the production value. 

DETAILED DON'TS:

You can’t exceed 500,000 physical copies or use the images in audio-visual productions that cost more than $10,000 to make. You can’t use the photos in products that you will then resell on a retail model (like t-shirts or canvases, for example). 

So what if you need more than 500,000 prints, you have a big-budget production in which you want to use images, or you want to use stock photos on a design to resell and make money? There is a solution: Shutterstock’s Enhanced License. Keep reading to find out more! 

#3. General Restrictions

Shutterstock License 3 > The Shutterstock License Explained: Do’s and Don’ts of Shutterstock Images

Shutterstock License 3.1 > The Shutterstock License Explained: Do’s and Don’ts of Shutterstock Images

 

More very important details, this time about the things you categorically can’t do with Shutterstock images. These are restrictions that cannot be overcome (meaning Enhanced License does not remove the prohibitions). So it’s very important to know them. 

Unamovable Don'ts
You cannot use the images in any other way that those authorised expressly by the license. You cannot resell it or redistribute it as-is in any way. You cannot use Editorial Only photos in commercial-oriented work. You also cannot make it look like you created the images yourself, nor register any content created using stock images as a trademark (like a logo).

The rest is what is known as “Sensitive Use clauses”, that restrict uses that might result in moral or personal conflicts: 

  • Use in pornography or content that could be perceived as defamatory, deceptive or in any way illegal, is forbidden. 
  • It’s also not allowed to use photos of people (models) that puts them under a “bad light” or in any way that could be seen as negative. This means topics like pornography, adult content, dating and escort services, political endorsement, promotion of health-endangering products (like tobacco), content linked to religion, or about physical or mental disabilities, as well as immoral or criminal activity, are off the table. 

#4. Enhanced License

Shutterstock License 4 > The Shutterstock License Explained: Do’s and Don’ts of Shutterstock Images

Remember at the end of point #2 we said Enhanced License was the solution if you needed to remove the print run limit, budget limit or resell prohibition? We were not kidding! 

Shutterstock’s Enhanced License quite literally enhances all the standard agreement’s usage rights by adding extra possibilities that erase the above-mentioned restrictions, for added flexibility and revenue opportunities. 

So, what does the Enhanced License include?

  • Unlimited copies for all the print uses accepted in Standard license
  • Unrestricted budget for all audiovisual production uses included in Standard agreement 
  • Ability to use Shutterstock photos in merchandise (for sale or promotional) and digital templates. More info about this in our coverage of where to find images to use in products for resale. 


It’s important to highlight that the right to use in products for resale means products where the image is part of the value, not the value itself. Reselling stock photos as what they are is always forbidden!
What About Pricing?
In Shutterstock’s website, all default prices displayed correspond to Standard Licensed images. They are available on-demand as well as with stock photo subscriptions. Prices range from $0,26 to $9,80 per download according to the buying method selected. 

And Enhanced? Given it gives you wider usage rights, it makes sense that images under this agreement come at a higher price point than those under Standard license. Enhanced Licenses are available for any image on Shutterstock’s library, and you can buy them on-demand in Enhanced License Packs starting at $99,50 per image. 

You can see all the details in our Shutterstock Pricing explanatory article

#5. Warranties and Representations

Shutterstock License 5 > The Shutterstock License Explained: Do’s and Don’ts of Shutterstock Images

As general as it may appear, this bit of terms is actually rather important! You may have read us before warning you about the dangers of using free photos from Google or the web in your designs (and if you haven’t, you really should!). The main reason free images are so dangerous is that nobody is backing up their legality, so you’re basically at your own risk, and without a lot of information as to how big that risk might be. 


With the above words, Shutterstock is expressing they do back up all their images, claiming they are legally verified as not infringing any copyright or privacy/individual rights and not violating any US laws. 

This is what gives you full peace of mind when it comes to using these photos in commercial-purposed projects, and what adds a ton of value to Shutterstock’s images and service too. 

#6. Indemnization Fee

Shutterstock License 6 > The Shutterstock License Explained: Do’s and Don’ts of Shutterstock Images

Shutterstock License 7 > The Shutterstock License Explained: Do’s and Don’ts of Shutterstock Images

Shutterstock License 8 > The Shutterstock License Explained: Do’s and Don’ts of Shutterstock Images

Another important point to know about Shutterstock License is the terms under which they’ll back up the legality of their images through indemnifications. 

As they lay out in their terms, providing that you abide by all the licensing terms in your use of a Shutterstock image, the agency will indemnify you in the case of legal claims made against the image or your use of them, and the amount of this indemnification depends on which licensing version you purchase: 

  • Standard License has an indemnification fee of $10,000
  • Enhanced License has an indemnification fee of $250,000

In short, this is how you are financially and legally protected when using Shutterstock photos (if you are using them correctly, of course). 

However, they also specify that if your misuse of an image results in legal claims against Shutterstock, you will be held accountable and required to indemnify them. This is why it's so important to fully understand their license terms!

#7. Licensing Comparison – What License Do You Need? Shutterstock License 9 > The Shutterstock License Explained: Do’s and Don’ts of Shutterstock ImagesShutterstock License 10 > The Shutterstock License Explained: Do’s and Don’ts of Shutterstock Images

If you are unsure of which one of the licensing versions suits you best, Shutterstock adds a bit of help with this comparative list. 

The condensed terms help you easily identify which terms would work best for you in terms of cost-benefit and coverage. 

Real-Life Examples
Following the comparisons, let’s see some use-case scenarios and what license would make more sense for each. 

  1. I need to make 100,000 flyers to promote my services in a big festival and will use the same image design in 10,000 hats I will be giving away at the venue. License: While there is no intention to resell the hats, the number of copies needed for the flyers do NOT need an Enhanced License (you can print up to 500,000 flyers before you need one) – standard license is just OK.
  2. I want to blow up an image for one big billboard in a high-traffic area of my city. License: Standard License is perfect for this. Despite the big project and its potential results, one billboard is covered.
  3. I wish to use an image in the design of a mobile app that I intend will be used by thousands of people. License: Regardless of the size of the expected audience, Standard License is good for using images in apps.
  4. I am creating ten big canvases and I want to use Shutterstock images with overlaid text, and I’m selling them to people to decorate their homes. License: It’s ok to resell the image if it’s altered with text and used in a final product, but only under an Enhanced License, even for 10 items only.
  5. My client wants me to make a design with an image for business cards, letterheads, envelopes and other minor stationery items for his company. He will be buying this design from me and taking it to another company to print the items. License: Standard License suits just fine, providing there will be no more than 500,000 prints of this design. The fact you’re selling the final work to one person does not qualify as retail resale, so there is no need for an Enhanced License. 

Design Bankable Creative Visuals with Shutterstock Images

Now you’ve learned all you need to know about Shutterstock License to get squeeze the value out of its stock photos and play safe regarding usage and coverage, you have it all to start downloading images from Shutterstock and creating awesome visual content for your business or project! 

Last but not least, grab these useful tips for buying Shutterstock images: 

Happy designing!

I am Content Manager, Researcher and Author in Stock Photo Press and its many stock media oriented publications. I am a passioned communicator with a love for visual imagery and an inexhaustible thirst for knowledge. I was lucky to enter the wonderful world of stock photography working side-by-side with experienced experts, and I am happy to share my research, insights and advice about image licensing, stock photography offers and stock media industry with everyone in the creative community. My background is in Communication and Journalism, and I also love literature and performing arts.

4 Comments
  1. This was extremely helpful. Thank you so much for making this. I especially found the Real-Life Examples part at the bottom helpful to understanding my particular needs.

  2. I’m not entirely clear as to what determines if I need an Enhanced License. I am a visual artist and need resource photos for my paintings. I want to use my personal photos and include an object that I can not photograph (for example, a penguin that lives no where near me). For that I need a resource photo. Do I need an Enhanced License because I might sell the artwork? No matter how much of the Shutterstock image I reproduce, nor no matter what percentage it is of my final painting? Do I need an Enhanced License if I’m only going to exhibit the artwork and never sell it?

    • Hi Wendy,

      You will need to verify this with a Shutterstock representative directly. It is my understanding that you cannot use a Shutterstock image as part of a painting, any more than you can use it as part of a logo. These are copyrighted images and you cannot claim them as your own, thus you could not claim a painting that contains a Shutterstock image as your own, original work, be it for exhibition or for sale. I am under the impression that Enhanced License doesn’t cover this.
      However, we at Stock Photo Secrets aren’t lawyers and we do not represent Shutterstock, so again, please verify this with them directly.

    Leave a reply

    Stock Photo Secrets