Understanding royalty-free images (Part 1)

Any subject you can think of, you can find a multimedia asset for it online. Multimedia includes photography but it could be also an illustration, video, vector art or audio file.

Any subject you can think of, you can find a multimedia asset for it online. Multimedia includes photography but it could be also an illustration, video, vector art or audio file. But, just because you can find an image of anything you want, doesn’t mean you can use it in any way that you want. This is the first of a two-part guide that will help you understand the rules and copyright laws for using stock photography and other images that you find online, covering:

  • Royalty-free images
  • Rights-managed images
  • Creative Commons
  • Free images

Jargon busting – understanding what the different licences mean


Royalty-free doesn’t mean FREE. You still need to pay for the image before you use it.

You’re ‘free’ from paying any future royalties if you use the image again for a different project. For example, once you have paid for a royalty-free stock image to use on your website, you have permission to use it again for the cover of your Annual Report. With a royalty-free image, the buyer can use the image for almost anything – as long as you comply with the license agreement. Generally, royalty-free license agreements are a non-transferable, non-exclusive, perpetual, worldwide, multiple-use sub-license. In plain language, that means:

  • Only you/your organisation can use it. You can’t re-sell it or gift it.
  • Anyone that buys the image can use it – you might see exactly the same photo being used by another business
  • You can use it for as long as you wish. Unless otherwise stated, there’s no time limit.
  • You can use it wherever you want – anywhere around the world
  • Most royalty free licenses allow an image to be printed/shown up to a certain number of times (250,000 or more in some cases).


These images are much more tightly controlled – but also much more exclusive. Rights-managed images charge a fee for use of a photo or image ONCE. A rights-managed image can be purchases exclusively or non-exclusively.

If you want to use that same image for a different project, you will need to re-license the image and explain what the image will be used for. A rights-managed license does allow you to use the image multiple times, but NOT for multiple uses, so you’re free to print that image on 2000 brochures, but if you want to use the image for a poster, you will need to purchase a new licensing agreement.

Creative Commons licences

These ones are probably the most complicated, but the big benefit is that using a Create Commons (CC) licence is free – if you comply with some baseline permissions and core conditions. The CC licenses were developed to provide original content creators with a standardised way of sharing their work without infringing copyright law. There are six different and very detailed CC licenses but generally, a CC license allows content to be shared, remixed and reused as long as:

  • the author of the work is attributed.
  • the content is being copied, distributed, displayed or performed for non-commercial purposes only
  • the content cannot be changed or adapted in any way
  • ‘derivative’ work (meaning work that is based on, adapted or remixed from an original idea) can only be distributed under the same license terms that govern the original work.

For further details regarding Creative Commons licences, there are fact sheets, definitions and further explanations available on the Creative Commons website.

Now all we have left to do is define free images, which is what we’ll be doing in Part 2 of our two-part guide to understanding the copyright laws for image use, along with some frequently asked questions relating to royalty-free and rights-managed images.

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