Finding free stock photos isn’t always easy. If you don’t have a go-to source for quality, free stock images to use, you could find yourself browsing the internet for an hour to find an image with the appropriate licensing and photo content.
Along the way, you’ve probably heard different terms that describe stock photos: Royalty free, images for commercial use, rights-managed, and free stock photos. It’s not immediately clear what these terms mean or what their corresponding licenses require if you use them.
If you’re using an image on behalf of a business–whether it’s on your Facebook page, a company blog, or a tri-fold brochure–you absolutely have to know how you’re allowed to use the image, or if you’re allowed to use it commercially at all.
We’ll explain the difference between royalty free, commercial, and free stock photos in this post. We’ll also talk about copyright infringement, when businesses are allowed to use a stock photo, different image licenses available from Creative Commons, and how image creators can track down illegal use of their images.
What are royalty free images?
If an image is royalty free and you want to use it, this is what happens:
- You pay one time to have unlimited access to a stock photo – no royalty fees
- The images can be used over and over as long as the original license terms are followed
- Some companies impose a number of permitted uses, which can limit the number of times you can use the stock photo. For example, one company allows 499,999 uses before requiring an extended license.
What are rights-managed images?
An image with a rights-managed license will also include specifications about how long the image can be used, how many permitted uses are allowed, and any included exclusivity.
Most rights-managed images are exclusively offered to the business or organization that first purchases the temporary rights to them, enabling a company to use never-before-seen images in their marketing and advertising content and materials.
The difference between royalty-free and rights managed
Royalty free images are purchased with a one time fee and can be used over and over, only requiring an extended license if the images are to be used more than 500,000 times or so. No royalties are owed to the image owner for use of the image; the one time fee covers your use of the image after that.
Rights-managed images include exact time periods of allowed use, circumstances of use (for example, may not be placed in “sensitive” advertisements about companies that sell products related to mental health or disorders, sexual preferences or issues, etc.), and who can use the image other than you. Most rights-managed images are exclusively licensed to one company.
What does ‘Editorial use only’ mean?
If an image says it’s available for editorial use only, that means it can’t be used for anything that advertises, markets, suggests, or promotes your business (or any other). Editorial photos might include components that have not been licensed for commercial use–paintings, brand logos, etc. in the photo can be the reason–and so using them for any business-related purpose is a direct violation of the license terms.
Editorial use covers non-commercial settings like:
- Newspaper articles
- Educational blogs
- Personal blogs
The photo can’t be used for commercial purposes like advertising, marketing, or any promotional activities. This is because editorial photos feature images of people or things that have not been licensed for commercial use. But these images can be used in non-commercial settings, like newspaper articles, educational blogs and magazines.
What is a Creative Commons license?
Creative Commons offers licenses that cover copyright terms. They allow content creators to decide which rights to reserve and which to offer for free or for a fee to customers.
These license can include restrictions such as whether or not an image can be used for commercial purposes, whether or not an image can be modified, and whether or not the photographer or image creator requires attribution or credit.
What is the difference between personal use and commercial use?
Personal use is defined as the use of an image that does not result in and is not intended for commercial gain. Personal use examples include:
- Personal blogs
- Newsletters for family and friends
- Wedding announcements
- Birth announcements
Commercial use includes use of images for commercial reasons. That includes promotions, endorsements, advertising, and merchandising for a business (yours or otherwise).
- Branded company website
- Tri-fold brochures
Stock photo copyright infringement
Copyright infringement is a violation of the creator’s rights to an image. Examples of imagery copyright infringement may include:
- Use of an image without permission
- Use of an image outside of license permission
- Modifying an image without permission
- Having an image recreated by another photographer or designer
Can I find free stock images using Google search?
No. Google search isn’t a reliable way to find free stock images. Even though you can select image permissions and licensing options in the “More” tab on search, the images that show up can still have special requirements that may not be apparent on the search screen.
It’s more reliable to use a website that compiles stock photos for you to browse and search. These images will have a readily apparent tag that notifies you what the license allows and prohibits, and if attribution is required.
How can image owners find their material being illegally used?
Image creators and photographers can find when their material is being illegally used online and protect their rights as creators. Imagery can be tracked, even if it has been modified, recreated, or used only in part.
If a copyrighted image is used without the proper permissions and attributions (as it would if you downloaded it from Google search results and used it without permission), the image gets flagged so the creator can check the image and ensure it’s being used legally.