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What does Royalty Free and Rights Managed Mean?


There is a significant difference between Royalty Free stock photos and Rights Managed stock photos.  If you are going to start using stock photography purchased from stock photography agencies for your graphic needs, image creations and marketing campaigns, understanding both of these terms is the first step to using purchased images.

Royalty Free Agreements

Royalty Free stock photos are in many cases interpreted as free photos.  This is not true.  Royalty Free means that the purchaser can use the photo multiple times on multiple projects with few restrictions.  Royal free photos can be used in a project, campaign, or on multiple print materials.  In simple terms, if you make a brochure with a Royalty Free image you can also make a poster, a business card and a banner with no further charges applied to your account.

Royalty Free also allows the purchaser to extend use to employees of the company that purchased the image.  This enables a company to use a set of images with all employees to build continuity in their images and not have to pay fees each time an employee needs to use the purchased image.

The downside to Royalty Free images is that they cannot be purchased on an exclusive basis so other stock photography purchasers may end up using the image you purchased for their campaign as well.  Royalty Free is a non exclusive copyright license.  There is a very famous image that was purchased by a few internet companies in the 1990’s.  The photo of a young Asian internet user (his real name is George Chen) was purchased from a stock photography agency as a Royalty Free image.  In months, the same image of ‘George Chen’ was on hundreds of internet sites, companies who were trying to create the poster child of the internet.   George’s photo met the need for internet companies but the non exclusive license had many companies accessing the same Royalty Free image.

Rights Managed Agreements

Rights Managed is a onetime charge for the use of a photo, one time, and can be purchased as an exclusive or non-exclusive photo.  If the user wants to use the image for additional projects, the image needs to be re-licensed again and outline the new use for the image.  The Rights Managed agreement allows multiple copies of the image under one project, but new uses need to be renegotiated.  As a real time example, you can use a Rights Managed photo for a brochure, but if you want to use it for a poster you will have to purchase a new licensing agreement that outlines the rights for poster distribution and use.

What makes a Rights Managed licensing agreement attractive is the option for exclusive or non-exclusive use.  This is an additional copyright license that needs to be negotiated.

Both copyright agreements are available through stock photography agencies.  Upon purchase of a stock photo the basic agreement will be a Royalty Free agreement.  In many cases the Royalty Free licensing agreement can be upgraded to an extended or enhanced agreement.  These agreements extend certain rights to Royalty Free images and should not be confused with Rights Managed photos.  Each stock photography agency defines what these additions are and the additional cost to add the enhancements.

What should I purchase, Royalty Free or Rights Managed Photos?

Review your needs and stock photography use before you purchase a photo from a stock photography agency.  If you are creating a personal invitation, local brochure or using the image for your family blog, purchasing Royalty Free images are the best choice.

If a photo is going to be used to build the image of your company, Rights Managed  with an exclusive agreement would be the best choice so that another company can not purchase the same image and ride on your success.

Bottom line on Royalty Free and Rights Managed Stock Photos

Both of these terms refer to the copyright agreement; legal uses and purchasing conditions of a stock photo.  Understanding the difference will enable you to determine whether you should be opting for the Royalty Free image price or paying for the Rights Managed price.  Online stock photography sites provide both options for the purchaser.  Many see the difference in price as a waste of money but if your use falls under the definition of Rights Managed  it will save you a ton of money to pay just a bit more to cover yourself legally or have stock photo exclusivity.

Review the licensing agreements on the stock photography sites to ensure you are complying with their agreements, understand what rights you are purchasing and negotiate additional agreements for your project.  Extended or enhanced rights may be sufficient for the needs of a project and is worth learning for each site.


About the author

I am a publisher and entrepreneur in the stock imagery field. I focus in 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 the PixelRockstar WordPress Plugin. 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.