What is a Royalty-Free license?

by Matic Broz

Royalty-free (RF) license is the most basic license used by stock photo agencies to sell stock images, videos, and illustrations. RF license grants a life-time permission to use purchased images, videos, or illustrations, but with certain restrictions. The royalty-free license grants only the right to use the image, and NOT the ownership.

The royalty-free license grants the buyer a set of rights to use the image in certain ways, for a one-time fee. This means that once you pay for the RF licensed image, vector, or illustration, you can use it forever within the previously accepted terms and conditions, without any further payments.

(from now on, I’ll refer to all stock media (images, vectors, illustrations, music, fonts, templates, etc.) as stock photos or stock images for clearer text).

Royalty-free license: Meaning

Royalty-free name of the license refers to the fact you do not have to pay royalties every time you use the photo. You pay only once, and can then use the photo forever, within the range of accepted uses. But it does not mean that RF photos are free to use. You must pay for the license first to use the photo legally.

The basic rule of stock photography you need to understand before purchasing your first stock photo is that with the payment of royalty-free license you are acquiring only the right to use the photo in certain ways, and not the ownership of the photo.

The creator of the photo remains the rightful owner of the photo, no matter how many people purchase it. That person still holds the official copyright of the photo, and you must not do anything that could shadow or circumvent this.

By keeping the copyright, the creator can use that same photo to make money elsewhere and generate more income. Hence, royalty-free stock photos are not copyright-free or free at all.

Stock agencies, such as Shutterstock, Adobe Stock, or Dreamstime, sell the licenses that give the customers, buyers, the right to use the stock photo within the accepted terms and conditions, but they don’t transfer the ownership.

Upon selling a royalty-free license for a stock photo, the agency that sold the photo and its rightful owner split the profit.

Unlike some other licenses, where you have to pay every time you want to use a stock photo, royalty-free license is a one-time purchase.

Are Royalty-free images free?

No, royalty-free images are not free. A stock agency that sells the photo determines the price; however, they retain the copyright, and the creator retains the ownership.

Don’t let the name of the license, royalty-free, mislead you. Although the name consists of the word “free”, the part that may confuse some, it’s no free license. The “Free” in “Royalty-Free” refers to the payment and use type, rather than the cost of the image. Once you pay the one-time fee, you don’t have to pay any more royalties to the agency or the author, even if you use the photo multiple times.

Royalty-Free license terms of use

Every stock photo agency has its own terms and conditions of use, and even different names for royalty-free license, but some key features are universal across all stock photo agencies.

  • License is not transferrable: When you purchase a royalty-free license, it’s yours only. You cannot share it, resell it, or even regift it. Only you can use it.
  • RF images are not exclusive: Everyone who purchases an RF license to a stock image can use it. This means that several different clients can use the same image. Hence, other licenses give you exclusive rights to the stock image, but these are more expensive. At some stock image, you might find a writing “exclusive royalty-free image” – this doesn’t mean that you’re granted an exclusive license to that image, but that this agency is the only one who has it. You cannot find the same image elsewhere.
  • RF is a perpetual license: Once you purchase the RF license, you may use it for a long as you need to, with no time limitations, whatsoever.
  • Worldwide use: RF license stock images are not geographically limited. You may use them anywhere in the world.
  • Multiple-use: RF license is not limited to a single-use. You may use it in as many projects as you want to and use multiple redistribution methods.

I listed the key features of a royalty-free license; however, every stock photo agency has its own rules and terms of use. Before you purchase a royalty-free image, you must read and understand the terms, and make sure they fit your needs.

How much does a Royalty-Free image cost?

Royalty-free images prices differ based on the stock photo agency, subscription plans, size, and payment methods. The range of RF stock images is between $0.17/image and $125/image.

I encourage you to check my list of the cheapest stock photo sites, to find the best option for yourself. The majority of stock photo agencies sell royalty-free images with subscription plans, a cheaper but less flexible option, and on-demand, a more expensive but 100% flexible.

Price per royalty-free image list:

The cost of royalty-free images varies wildly, but so does their quality, intent, and license restrictions.

Allowed uses for royalty-free licenses

There are three different types of uses of royalty-free licenses: Commercial, Editorial, and Extended.

Commercial RF license is the most widely used RF license, that can be used both for physical products and as a part of graphic designs, but it has a reproduction limit between 250,000 and 500,000, based on the agency that sells it. In some cases, it’s difficult to guess the number of impressions a product will have, on TV or film, for example, so a budget is used as a limit. Commercial RF licensed images can also be used to illustrate books and book covers, magazines, T-shirt, packaging, etc., but within the reproduction limit.

Editorial RF license is a lot more restrictive than a commercial. While you still pay the same as for the commercial RF license, its uses are restricted. Editorial RF images may only be used to illustrate a text, such as in news, magazines, or digital publications. Any sort of profitable use is forbidden. Additionally, several agencies put a limit of reproduction even on Editorial RF images at 250,000 up to 500,000.

Extended RF license has all the same uses as a Commercial or an Editorial RF licenses, but with an unlimited reproduction number. Extended RF license costs more but with unlimited reproduction limit, there usually is no problem covering the initial license cost.

Restrictions to royalty-free licenses

A royalty-free license comes with a few additional restrictions, that are based around morality and scams, for the most part.

  • You may not resell or redistribute the image as it is. You may only use it as a part of a bigger design.
  • You may not share the image with others, store it on a shared drive, or gift it.
  • You may not use the image in adult content, such as sexually explicit scenes.
  • You may not use the images as a part of scam campaigns.
  • You may not manipulate images to appear as if models in it promote any sort of commercial or political campaign.
  • You may not use images as a part of a trademark or logo design.

Royalty-free images use

Royalty-free images can be used as a part of a bigger design, such as:

  • Online marketing campaigns
  • On websites and for web ads
  • For illustrations and covers of books, ebooks, CDs, DVDs, magazines
  • For prints on T-shirts, mugs, etc.
  • As a part of creative projects
  • Print banners and interior design

Keep in mind, that this information is just a summary of several licenses and may not be accurate for every RF license available. Always read an RF license before you use any stock media.

Royalty-free license Summary

In conclusion, royalty-free license is the most basic and inexpensive premium stock license available. Consequently, its uses are very limited and are seldom appropriate for bigger commercial campaigns. When you known you’ll have a larger audience (500,000+), you should always purchase an Extended RF license.

Disclaimer: All recommendations are impartial and are based on my experience, with no bias to the products or the brand. This post may contain affiliate links.

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