Using Stock Photos in Client Work: A Comprehensive Guide

As a graphic designer or creative, you often get hired by clients to create a design for them. Royalty-Free Images for commercial use are a great resource for compelling and visually powerful designs.

  • But if you use stock photos in work that you create for a client, who owns the image?
  • Are you transferring the image's license to your client?
  • Can your client further use the image in other projects?

These are questions that often arise when you want to use stock photos in commissioned work, and sometimes a stock photo agency's legal terms are not so straightforward about this.

If you are interested in finding a manual for the legal and ethical correct use of stock photos, our brand-new guide to rules for using stock photos might be a great help for you.

Here we cover all details about image licensing and its uses in client work. If you have any doubts, find them explained next:

Can I Use Stock Photos in Designs I will Sell to a Client?

transfer-images-clients

Yes, you can. Each stock agency has its own terms, but in general lines, Royalty-Free stock photography allows you to use images in designs for a third party or client. But there are some considerations:

  • The image must be part of a design – Royalty Free images can be used in content that will be then sold to a client (who must be the end-user), as long as you make them part of your design, be it cropping or resizing them, correcting or modifying colors or elements, overlaying text, etc. And then deliver the design containing them to the end user. 
    But you may NEVER sell, redistribute or gift the plain image, just as it was downloaded from the source to anyone. This is specifically forbidden, and doing it would be major copyright and licensing infringement.
  • The design must be for one end customer – Standard license lets you use the image in design for one end customer. If you want to use the photo in serial-produced content you will then put it up for sale, you need an Extended license.
  • Always check the specific license agreement of the stock agency which you got the image from. If you are not sure about it, ask the stock agency!

You can buy high-quality and cheap stock photos from various agencies. We recommend you choose from our Top 7 Cheapest Stock Photo Subscriptions in 2016. 

Do I Own the License to the Photo, or my Client Does?

designer-own-design

Depends: who bought the image? Royalty Free license grants usage rights to the person who purchased the license, and only to that person. Most agencies coincide at this point.

If you made the purchase, then you own the photo. As said above, you can still use it in a design for a paying client. The client might own the specific design they paid for, but they do not own the image in it.

Learn more about Royalty Free license and images here.

Do you work as part of a design team? If so, individual stock photo accounts won't cut it for you, but you can find all you need to know about the team accounts, including legal details and best offers, in our Multi-user stock photo subscriptions breakdown.

Can I Transfer the Image to my Client?

No, you cannot. At least at most stock photo agencies, Royalty Free images are non-transferable. This means the license always stays with whom acquired it. You cannot in any way transfer the ownership of the license. 

If you are the one who licensed the image, it's yours to use forever (under Royalty Free terms), but only by you. Only the license owner can access, view, and work with the images as they are downloaded. When you use a stock photo you own in a design for a client, what they might own — depending on your contract terms — is the copyright or the usage rights to the design, but not to the image itself.

What if my Client Wants to Own the Image?

give-it-to-me

Here the easiest way would be for your client to buy the image and forward it to you to work with it. At most agencies, this is possible, as long as you delete the image once the work is done, and of course, you are not allowed to use it ever again (as you don't own the license).

But other agencies do not allow giving any third-party access to the downloaded image as is (nevertheless, a lot of people do it that way). This means your client cannot forward you the image they bought just as it is.

There are two solutions for when a client wants to own the license to an image used in a design for them, and the agency doesn't let you work with it if you don't have a license too:

  1. The two of you buy a license. You can suggest to your client that both of you buy a license to the same image. That way, they'll also own the right to use it. Royalty Free images are very cheap, so although this implies an extra expense, it's still a very affordable solution. This is particularly recommended when designing a book or e-book covers, or any other work where the client sees value in retaining usage rights over the image, for future re-use.
  2. Acquire a multi-seat license. This is useful if your clients want to be able to view the licensed images before and during the designing process, or if you work with a designer's team. Multi-seat is a type of Extended license, that comes at a higher price. It essentially lets you grant access to more users to the same agency account, enabling them to browse and download images. If your client's budget allows it, they can buy a multi-seat license and grant you access to the photos. That way, they'll own them, and you'll be able to work with them. Multi-seat license is available at some agencies, but not in all of them. 

What if I Want to Use an Image in Designs I'll Resell on Demand?

print-on-demand

This kind of usage is generally restricted in Standard Royalty Free. You can use stock photos in a design you've been hired to create, or in many designs, you will then offer to end customers.

But if you want to sell many duplicates of the same design, like t-shirts, posters, web templates, etc., you usually need an Extended license.

For a higher price, an Extended license gives you the right to use the image in products for resale such as photo calendars, mugs, T-Shirt, or website templates. Some let you use it in an unlimited number of units, and some restrict the volume of copies. But this is the most common type of Extended license, and it's available at most agencies.

Why is Important to Know Who Owns the Image?

important-to-know

In stock photo licensing, who owns the image is entitled to the usage rights, and equally important, is held responsible for that usage.

When using stock photos in client work, knowing who owns the image will help you clarify relevant issues like:

  • How can your client use the image? If they don't own a license to the image, they can only use it within the design you've created for them and for which they paid. They cannot use the image itself in any other design unless they commission it from you, or they acquire a new license to the image.
  • Who is responsible for the misuse. If you own the photo, you must be sure you're using it in the right way, but you must make sure your client knows the restrictions applied to them.

Always mindfully read the particular License Agreement, paying attention to the fine print and making sure you understand all the terms. It's this that will help you rest assured that you and your client are using the images in a legal and accepted way.

Still have question how to use stock photos in client work? Ask Here!

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🤓 I need more Information about using Stock Photos in Client Work

🤨 I have a question about using Stock Photos in Client Work

🤔 I don’t know if using Stock Photos in Client Work correctly

🙄 Something else…

Amos Struck

Amos Struck

I am a publisher and entrepreneur in the stock imagery field. I focus on providing knowledge and solutions for buyers, contributors and agencies, aiming at contributing to the growth and development of the industry. I am the founder and editor of Stock Photo Press, one of the largest networks of online magazines in the industry. I am the founder of Microstock Expo, the only conference dedicated to the microstock segment. I created several software solutions in stock photography like WordPress plugins. Plus I am a recurrent speaker at Photokina Official Stage, and an industry consultant at StockPhotoInsight. I am passionate about technology, marketing and visual imagery.

32 Comments
  1. Hi – how do you prove to a client that the image is properly licensed?

    • By sharing the license agreement of the stock agency you bought it at and maybe also show your proof of purchase. I hope that helps. Also make sure that your client understand how he can use the image or design you have created for him based on the stock photo.

  2. Your articles are great! So glad I found some comprehensive information on this topic.

    So, in a case where I design a book cover for a client that includes a stock image that is licensed to me, would they be able to then print off however many copies of that design? I realize I’d have to read the agreement that is particular to the company I’m going through. But, is there anything in particular I should look for in terms of type of license for this scenario?

    Thanks very much!

    • Hi Amy, I can only answer this for my own stock agency. Yes your client would be able to print it if you supply a final design and not just the “raw” stock photo to him. Of course the licesee agreement of the stock agency where you bought the photo applies here i.e. 500.000 print run (copies) for most stock agencies. Otherwise you would need an extended license. I hope that helps. Always check with the agency you have bought from.

  3. Hi, I am a website developer and my clients sometimes find a photo on Google or Pinterest they want to use on their website (e.g in an article). I have subscriptions on some stock photo sites. Can I license these images and use them on the client’s site? How can I prove that these are licensed photos and not just downloaded from Google? What is the proper way of attribution in case of paid and licensed stock photos? How can I prove that I paid for a stock photo after I cancel my subscription? Can intro images of articles be considered part of the design?
    Thanks
    Krisztina

    • So you got a lot of questions and concerns. Let me try to help you and keep in mind our answers are not legally binding nor can I answer in the name of any stock agency. Also keep in mind some license terms of stock agencies might not include all of what I recommend. Here are my answers:

      Can I license these images and use them on the client’s site? With most stock agencies you can use the downloaded images in your account for client work. Usually they require that the client knows that he do not own the license himself and can only used the image in the design you have provided. You can not just download and give him the original image to be used everywhere without question.

      How can I prove that these are licensed photos and not just downloaded from Google?
      Simply keep the records from the stock agency where and when you have downloaded what image. Some stock agencies also give you a license certificate. Same like if you buy in a shop, keep the bill to proof that you have not shoplifted.

      What is the proper way of attribution in the case of paid and licensed stock photos?
      Check the license agreement where you downloaded images from. Usually, for commercial work (i.e. ads, flyers, etc.) no contribution is needed. On editorial work i.e. websites, blogs, managzines, books most agencies require some mentioning of the image source. The requirements are different here.

      How can I prove that I paid for a stock photo after I cancel my subscription? Simply keep a record of the images downloaded from the stock agency (make a screenshot if you need additional proof).

      Can intro images of articles be considered part of the design? What type of articles? You can not just use any article images from any brank and incorporate this into your design.

      I also recommend to know answers to all these questions before you start your own design studio. It can get you into trouble later if you don’t do them correct from the start on.

  4. Can I use a stock photo for which I have a standard license to design for multiple independent clients?

    • Hi there, thank you for your question. This all depends on the license of the image and where you have bought the license from. Some stock agencies like Adobe Stock are requesting to license the image again for every client. Here is a quote from their license agreement: “You must purchase additional licenses for the same Work if you intend to use the same Work for the benefit of other clients”. Keep in mind that my comment is not a legal advice – always check with a lawyer and with your stock photo supplier. This also might apply only to some stock agency suppliers. Some other stock agencies might allow the usage of the same licensed image for different clients.

  5. Amos,
    Great post… super helpful. Followup Question for ya:

    You mention to other commenters that they should keep screenshots of the license agreements, etc., but…. do you have or know of a good system for managing these “receipts” something more in the way of a master manifest of stock images/licenses?

    Thinking more of an agency that designs, builds, and maintains hundreds of sites.

    Thanks in advance.

    • Hi Mac, thank you for your question. I honestly wouldn’t put too many thoughts into this. Yes, you can create a screenshot of their license agreement at the time of your download. Or simply create a PDF from it. But honestly what would be the benefits of it compared to the additional work it creates? The stock agency will have a record of your download (and usually also keep it) and can always tell you exactly the license (version) you have got with your download.

      What are your concerns or why do you think you should store it additionally? What are you worried about?

  6. Something else…

    Hi! Can I use a stock photo if I am going to insert a quote as if the person in the stock photo said it? For example, if I had the quote, “I am a teacher” over a stock photo of an adult, would this be allowed?

    • Hi Sarah, this question is hard to answer. Usually, it is NOT allowed to let stock models have “say” a quote. Since the model does not consent to what you have to “say” through them. It also implies that this person is real and it’s their opinion. Therefore I do not recommend doing it.

  7. I need more Information about using Stock Photos in Client Work

    Do I need to provide receipt of the purchase for the client when I use stock photo in the work?

    • Usually, you do not show proof to a client, only if the client requests it. We always recommend keeping proof for later, in case someone comes and ask for the correct license.

  8. Something else…

    Some great coverage of topics here, much appreciated. So if I, as a in-house producer at a multi-national company, work with an agency on a video edit and ask them to buy stock videos/photos for a specific edit, can I re-use those videos or photos in another edit? If the agency bills us for the purchase from say Getty or Shutterstock, do we then own the rights as we paid for them?

    • Usually, you can NOT re-use those assets or videos in “raw” format in another edit if you don’t own the full rights on them. The agency you ordered to buy them for you are owning the right to use them in the clients work (you are the client here). But they usually do not get the right to give these assets to you (as a client). I always recommend, especially for a multi-national company, to own the correct rights to use the assets even in other new edits or videos company-wide. If your company is very big, you might need a special multi-national license or upgraded user license to be able to use it within that company. All of my answers are only my personal opinion and not any type of legal advice. Always advise with a lawyer as well.

  9. I’m a web designer and I’m re-designing a website. Can I use the images already on there? My client doesn’t know where they came from and since the site was built on WIX, I assume they came from them. The new site is on WP. thx!

    • I personally would never use existing images if you or your client do not own a full license for them. I rather spend some money to buy similar or even the same images on a stock photo website. That’s much safer for the future, and you also make sure your customer does not get in trouble in the future.

  10. I need more Information about using Stock Photos in Client Work

    I am creating a brochure for a client. I will charge them for the design and they will hand it out to their potential customers. All of the licensing rules are confusing at this point and I REALLY want to avoid trouble 🙂 If I use photos on Shutterstock then resize or overlay them, can I use them for this client?

    • Hi Abbey, if I understand correctly, you will design a brochure (using Shutterstock images in the design), for a client, and your client will print that brochure and hand it out to its prospective customers. If this is the case, you are fine with a standard license from Shutterstock, keeping in mind it has a print run limit of 500,000 copies (you would need an Enhanced license if you were to exceed that number of copies).
      The only thing you and your client need to know is that you will be the owner of the images’ licenses. Your client will only own the design you created for their brochure and will only be able to use said design. Your client CAN NOT use the images from that brochure for any other design unless they go and buy a license from Shutterstock themselves.
      However, we are not Shutterstock representatives so I recommend you to get in touch with the agency directly to get their official response on this matter before using the images, for your peace of mind.
      Hope this helps!

  11. I have a question about using Stock Photos in Client Work

    Hi there, can I use stock images in online advertising for clients. So I would buy a standard licence then use these images for clients without them paying for any license. Feedback would be greatly appreciated.

    • Hi Joshua, I think this was explained quite well in the article. You are can create a design for a customer and then give the customer the final design. They can then use this design (not the raw stock photo) for their advertisement. The client does not obtain a license for this, nor does he has the right to use your photo in other ways. Just keep in mind to double-check with the stock agency you are licensing from if they allow it. Usually, they do. I hope that answers your question.

  12. Something else…

    The client is asking to share the license of the images I used. What should I share?

  13. I need more Information about using Stock Photos in Client Work

    I plan to create videos using shutterstock images to sell to clients. These videos will be used as promotional material for book sales. If I alter every image in some way (normally by adding text over the image,) am I legally in the clear to sell the video to a client? I will tell them they do not own the original photos and cannot use them individually, but only the video as I created it and shared digitally only (such as on social media for promotion.) Is this within the usage rights for a standard license per photo? none of the original images will be used by anyone other than me. My clients will only share the videos, as i created them, on social media, or youtube perhaps, for promotion of their product (books.) The original images will never be used by any of my clients in print or any other way (only as featured in the video, as I created it). Thank you very much for any additional information you can give me. Additionally, If I purchase the standard license to a shutterstock photo, can I use that image for more than one client video? (altered, such as with added text, of course)

    • Hi Michelle,

      Obligatory disclaimer that we are not lawyers and we don’t represent other stock photo agencies. That said, what you describe would fall within the description of client work and would be covered by a Standard license at most stock photo agencies. Of course, you need to read the license agreement of the agency you choose before downloading, to verify this is the case (and contact them directly if you need clarification). But as long as you take the steps you detailed about protecting the original photos and informing the client of the limitations in which they can use the video, this should be ok. As a side note, make sure to verify the agency you are using covers YouTube usage, and what terms they have for such use. For example, Shutterstock has a budget limitation for YouTube video use, and Adobe Stock has a viewer cap.
      As for your last question, Shutterstock’s Standard license is royalty-free, so yes, you can use the same image in more than one project, for more than one client, with the same one license (and without having to pay anything extra). What you need to know is that the coverage of client work is “one project for one client”. If you plan to sell the exact same video or design to multiple clients, then you need to verify with the agency directly as that might be considered product for resale and require an Extended license.
      Hope this helps!

  14. I need more Information about using Stock Photos in Client Work

    Thank you for very useful information! As a designer I sometimes work with ‘translating’ book covers for publishers here in Norway. My clients wants to use the same design as the original book cover and buy the rights through the publishing house in that country. I receive design files from that publishing house and design the Norwegian version. Some cover illustrations are based on many stock photos put together in one image and the Norwegian publisher is asked to clear the rights for all these images before publishing. As my client is not used to handle stockphotos, they ask me to do this. I download and pay for the images and charge them for the cost. After checking in here I have my doubts; is this the correct way to handle the rights, and does my client actually get the rights this way?

    • Hi Cecilie, you would need to verify directly at the agency you are using, as licensing agreements can vary from one company to the next. However, in general lines, if you are the one purchasing and downloading the photos, then the licenses (the rights) are being used under your name, not your client’s. If you then use the images in the book cover designs and send them that design, they do get the right to use the design (this is covered under client work), but they do not own the rights to use the image alone –outside of that cover design–. And if you’re using Royalty Free images, almost none of them allow you to transfer the license, so your client is very likely not holding any rights over these pictures. They should be buying the licenses themselves. Obligatory disclaimer: we are not lawyers and we do not represent other stock photo agencies, so you would need to contact the company you got the images from and verify with them.
      Hope this helps!

  15. I have a question about using Stock Photos in Client Work

    I am producing a series of videos for a local education authority in the UK. The videos will be used in classes in schools. One of the videos is about Humanism and the Humanist society has sent me two Shutterstock images for use in the video. If they have paid Shutterstock for these, I understand that I can incorporate the images into the video on their behalf. I also understand that once incorporated in the video, I cannot keep or use the images again as I do not own them. Is this correct, or do I need to ask the local authority (executive producer of the video) to purchase the images as well?

    • Hi Jerry, we are not Shutterstock representatives nor attorneys, so my answer is for orientation only. Is the Humanist Society involved in the production of these videos, or did they send you the photos as a courtesy? This one is a bit tricky because if your client is the local authority, then they would need to purchase a license for those photos, yes. If your client is the Humanist society and they already have licenses for those images, that should be fine. I strongly suggest you contact Shutterstock directly to verify. Everything else you got it right: you are covered to use the images in the making of the videos, but you won’t own any rights over them and must delete them from your devices once you submit the project to your client(s).
      Hope this helps!

  16. I need to insert stockphoto inside my client website. The photo will have no modification other then resizing. Who can or should buy the licence (me the integrator) or my client? I’m with shutterstock. Thank!

    • Hi Matin, if you license the image, your client will only be able to use it the way you deliver it (as part of the website design for them) and could never use it in any other way. If the client buys the license, then they’d be able to use the image in as many designs and ways as they wish –within the license terms–, so that might be more beneficial.
      However, keep in mind we are not Shutterstock representatives so if you have doubts we suggest you contact Shutterstock directly and verify with them.
      Hope this helps!

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