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Alaniz Quick Guide to Stock Photography Image Rights

By September 16, 2015August 13th, 2017Strategy

Image usage rights are no joke!

I have heard numerous stories of other agencies and businesses receiving cease and desist letters accompanied with threats of lawsuits if the violator does not voluntarily meet their $5K payment demand for damages. Ouch!

Normally an image rights violation isn’t an intentional act to steal or defraud – it’s a simple mistake, oversight, or the ignorance of an intern who grabbed a photo off of Google Images, not knowing that the image is owned by Getty or another stock house.

Although reading through license terms and conditions seems like a pain, it’s definitely worth the due diligence to make sure that you, your team, and your company are well covered.

First, the good news. Images are cheap and easy to license!

Image rights are inexpensive and there are millions of images available under free licenses or for nominal costs of a few dollars. Some of the big stock photo houses offer reasonable memberships and volume packages as well for designers and power users.

The golden rule of image rights:

Never take an unlicensed image off of Google, any other search engine, any website, or anywhere else that does not belong to you. There is no way to know who owns it and it’s just not worth the risk.

The basic types of licenses and what they cover:

Disclaimer! (I had to do it.)  Before we get too much further into this topic, it’s important to note that each photo house has its own license terms and conditions – which may vary or change over time. This article contains basic guidance, but please make sure to review specific rights that apply to you.

Standard / Royalty Free License – Standard royalty free licenses typically cover use of stock images for general use in their original or a modified state over a variety of formats, including websites, collateral, marketing materials, print, tradeshow, and, in some cases, product packaging and advertising. Royalty free licences allow images to be used multiple times and/or in multiple assets under the same license, as opposed to rights managed images that have expressed permissions. Standard licenses typically have some usage/format limitations and is governed by volume limits.

Editorial Only License – Editorial Use Only images usually apply to images of public figures, events, and cases with real people (as opposed to models or actors). These images carry their own set of rules on where and how they can be used and they typically require an attribution link.  For instance, they cannot be used in advertising or a website banner for your company. However, typically, they can be used in an editorial article that is specifically and directly relevant, such as a news story. It’s also important to note that the terms of most editorial only images also disallow modifying the image from its original state. If you’re going to use editorial images, make sure to read the fine print!

Rights Managed and Exclusive Licenses – Some images are strictly regulated in terms of how they are used, including volume, venue, and format. Typically these are premium and expensive images. Rights to some images may also be purchased outright with an exclusive license.

Extended, Premium, and Custom Licenses – Stock houses typically offer extended licenses for higher volume rights, specific format, attribution, or modification rights.

Who is covered to download, modify and/or use images?

This one is tricky! It gets down into the fine print, but is an extremely important concept. The person who is covered to use an image is extremely different from who has the rights to download and modify the image.

The Right to Use Versus The Right to Modify – This is an important distinction. Our agency has a license for our appointed in-house designer to source, download, and modify images through a volume license under our ShutterStock account. We may provide the finished asset to our client as a modified or designed image file (not the original raw image) or as a part of a finished product, such as a website or email template. The right to use the image passes to the client.

However, our client does not have the right to modify the image. This includes cropping, coloring, adding text, resizing. Basically, anything that involves photoshop or any photo editing program. Should any client wish to modify the image or take advantage of rights that extend beyond our Standard User license, they have a few options. Our designer can modify the asset for them, they may license the image themselves, or our agency can acquire a transferable license on their behalf.

Single User Licenses – A single user license allows one single user to log in, download, and modify images. It’s important to note that this is not one single user at a time. It’s literally one specific person.

Multi-User Licenses – A multi-user license is typically the same as a single user license, but allows two, three, four, or more single users. Again, the users are not concomitant users, but actual individuals who need access to modify the images.

Company License – A company license covers all people at a company.

Transferrable License – A transferrable license applies when a company, say an agency, purchases image rights to develop an asset for a client, but then wants to transfer full usage rights back to the client in the end under a company license.

That (just about) covers it!

As much as I wish I could provide the one-stop guide here, every shop is going to have different terms and conditions, so you’ll definitely have to make sure to do your due diligence. Either way, we hope that intro helps!

To make it a little easier, here are links to license terms for some of the larger stock photo houses to get you started. Best of luck!




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Andrew Erickson

Andrew is a partner at Alaniz and is responsible for heading up digital strategy and our organizational and technology infrastructure.