All You Need to Know About Stock Image Licenses

Images don't just add visual appeal to your site. They've also been shown, time and again, to be effective at converting users into customers. Fortunately, millions of images are available on the Web.


Not all of them can be used for free, though. Unless stated otherwise, an image is assumed to be protected by copyright. In other words, if you use an image without paying for it, without asking for the necessary permissions, and/or without complying with other applicable copyright laws, the image owner/creator has every right to sue you for infringement.

That's why images often come with licenses – which restrict how, when, where and who uses them. We're going to explain the most common ones in this post – what you can do with them, what you can't do with them, and how to determine which license you should pay for.

Royalty vs. Rights-Managed


Most image licenses fall under two main types: royalty-free and rights-managed.

  • Royalty-free isn't the same as cost-free, or even restriction-free. What it means is, once you've paid for the license, an image can be used however you want at no additional cost – as long as the usage is permitted within the license agreement. Royalty-free images are the cheapest paid images available, and can be sourced from most stock image sites. Unfortunately, this also means that anyone who can afford to pay for them can use them, which means there's a large risk for brand dilution when you use these types of images.
  • Rights-managed licenses, on the other hand, are more restrictive. They often limit usage to a single licensee, a single project, a specified time period, and even a specified geographic location. The upside to this is the exclusivity of the images; that is, you can use them for larger print runs, and you may even benefit from the usage history tracked by the image provider.

You can extend a royalty-free license with an extended/enhanced license. Since the provisions of this license vary from one image provider to another, it's best to consult with legal counsel before purchasing one of these. 

Editorial vs. Commercial vs. Retail

Image licenses are also classified according to their intended use: editorial, commercial and retail.

  • Editorial images are used for journalistic and educational purposes. For example, a photograph of a celebrity wedding that accompanies an article in the local paper falls under this category.
  • Commercial images, on the other hand, are used to sell products. If a company commissioned a photographer to cover the celebrity wedding because the bride was wearing one of the company's tailor-made dresses, the resulting images would be commercial.
  • Lastly, retail images are purchased/commissioned for personal use. If the bride and/or groom commissioned the photographer themselves to take pictures, these will fall under the retail category.

It's important to make these distinctions, because they determine, among other things, whether the images require a model/property release or not.

  • Model release. If an image depicts real-life people, and is to be used commercially, a model release must be signed by the ones in the picture. If the same image is intended for editorial use, however, model releases aren't necessary.
  • Property release. If an image depicts a trademark, and will be used commercially, a property release should be signed by the trademark owners. If the same is for editorial use, this additional step isn't necessary.  

Other Terms of Use

When reading a license agreement, you may also come across one or more of the following terms:

  • End-User. The end-user is the last person an image is intended to reach. For example, a commercial image's end-users are the buyers of that company's product, while the end-users of a retail image are the direct buyers of the image.
  • End-Product. The final product on which an image will be used. If an image is used for a book cover, for instance, the end-product is the book.
  • Licensee. The one who purchased the license.
  • Multiple Use. You may use an image up to a certain number of times (e.g. 250,000).
  • Non-exclusive. Anyone who pays for the image license can use it.
  • Non-transferable. You're prohibited from reselling, gifting or using other means to transfer the license to anyone else. 
  • Perpetual. You may use the image for as long as you want.
  • Print-on-Demand Products. These are commercial products (e.g. mugs, T-shirts) on which stock images are printed. Stock image sites typically prohibit the use of images in this manner.
  • Single vs. Multiple Applications. This refers to the number of users of a single end-product. "Single application" is for a single end-user, while "multiple application" is for multiple users.
  • Single vs.Multiple Seats. This one, on the other hand, refers to the number of people who can download an image given a single license. A "single-seat" license allows only one person to download the image, while a "multiple-seat" license allows up to five people to do the same.  
  • Worldwide. The image may be used anywhere in the world.

Creative Commons

creative commons logo

For those who wish to use images for free, and without violating copyright laws, Creative Commons (CC) licenses are a godsend. Proper attribution, as well as compliance with other licensing terms, is the only thing required of those who want to make use of this. There are six main types of CC licenses.

  • Attibution-Only. The simplest CC license. The user only has to give proper credit to the image creator.
  • Attribution-ShareAlike. You can attribute to and modify the original image. The end result can likewise be attributed to, and modified, by other users.
  • Attribution-NoDerivative. You can attribute to, but not modify, the original image.
  • Attribution-NonCommercial. You can attribute to, and modify, the original image, as long as the end result is not to be used for commercial purposes.
  • Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike. Anyone who builds on, or modifies, your work under this license must work under the original "Attribution-NonCommercial" license.
  • Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivative. You can share this work, and provide appropriate credit, but you are not allowed to modify or use it commercially.

Public Domain

PublicDomain Logo

If an image is designated as "CC0" or "public domain", it means that image has been released from copyright restrictions. You may use it however you want, without paying any license fees, and without giving attribution. It's as simple as that.

Questions to Ask Before Purchasing a License

Now that you know how image licensing works, the next question is: How do you know which of these suits your needs the best? Here's a list of questions that may help:

  • Who created the image?
  • Who/What is in the image?
  • How will the image be used?
  • Where will you use the image?
  • Who will benefit from using the image?
  • How many end-users will the image serve?
  • Do you intend to modify the image?
  • Do you foresee a need to change the license terms in the future?

This post has only begun to explore the complexities of image licensing. The best way to deal with them is to consult with copyright experts. In the meantime, if you know of other image licensing terms omitted here, please let us know in the comments section

Written 2015-06-30 (Updated 2016-10-10)
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Written by David Walsh

David Walsh is the editor in chief here at Web Hosting Search. Having been in the industry for many years now he knows pretty much everything about everything. At least that's what he keeps telling everyone at the office. So, don't hesitate to drop him a line  if you've got a question - david(a)

Share your thoughts

David Walsh,  3 July, 2015

Hi Simon; have a look at the list here for some good free stock phot sites, hope that helps, I know it can be frustrating finding the ones you want.

Simon Gentely ,  3 July, 2015

Finding good stock image sites is such a pain!! most are so generice and some of the search functions are laughable, all the good ones i find seem to charge a fortune as well. Also i have a question that might be stupid but anyway.. if I have say a logo for an articel promoting the compnay or prudct do i need to get permission to use that logo or image?

Matt,  3 July, 2015

HI Pete, Think most will want a do.follow link, however im sure you can get away with a no.follow if you want, they will probalby contact you if it needs to be changed.

Pete Willson,  30 June, 2015

does anyone know if stock image sites that require a link back to use the photo need it to be a do-follow or no-follow link?

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