What Are Royalty Free Images?

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Royalty free images on computer screen: What Are Royalty Free Images?Images are worth their weight in gold in the online world. But how do you know if what you’re “re-purposing” is considered royalty free, public domain, copyrighted, etc.? The web has helped us share information like never before, but it also presents legal risks for people who publish on the web. Most of us understand plagiarism as it applies to written content, but what about photography?

The legalities around image use are confusing for sure — much more so than simply citing a source for written content. That’s especially the case with the advent of stock photography, which allows you to use photographs either for free, or for a licensing fee. But almost always, even in the free case, a license applies and your allowed use of the photo is limited legally.

What Is Stock Photography?

First, it helps to understand the basics of stock photography. Using stock photos or images is an excellent way for graphic designers and web publishers to use professional quality images for a fraction of the cost of hiring a professional photographer. There are a ton of websites where you can find stock photos, but stock photography distribution sites, like iStock and BigStock, or independent photographers own the legal rights to these images. You can use these images if you pay for a license.

In general, there are 2 types of stock photography licenses: royalty-free or rights-managed. 

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What Are Royalty Free Images?

You’ve probably heard the joke when someone does you a favor that they should have “charged royalties.” What do they mean by that?

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What are royalties exactly? A simple definition is that they are “an agreed-upon fee paid for each use of a commercial item.”

But the term royalty-free can be misleading. “Free” doesn’t mean you can use the images for free. It just means you don’t have to pay the copyright holder each and every time you use that image. With royalty-free images you pay a one-time license fee, which gives you close to carte blanche to use the image for an unlimited amount of time on unlimited types of projects. In contract a rights-managed license places restrictions on details like the duration of use, type of media and geographical location but you will likely have more exclusive use of that image.

Are There Any Free Images For Commercial Use?

Yes, free images are most commonly referred to as public domain photos — essentially they’re copyright free images you can use without having to worry about copyright infringement. With public domain photos you have the free rein to download, use, and re-use images as much as you’d like for both commercial and private use. We’ve got an entire article reviewing providers of free images.

Not sure about the legality of a particular image?

If you run into any questions around legal use of images or other creative pieces, be sure to consult Creative Commons for help.

What Are Some Good Royalty-Free Sources for Bloggers?

Check out this video, which illustrates how WordPress bloggers can find the best royalty-free images online.

What’s the Best Way to Find Stock Images Online?

There are literally hundreds of sites to weed through if you do a general search for stock images — and many sites offer more than photos: stock video, illustrations, graphics, audio and more. A good place to start is to read our best stock photography sites comparison. We give you category winners based on your needs, recommendations, pros and cons on more than a dozen of the top stock image sites. Happy image hunting!

Is there a royalty-free stock photo site you love?

About The Author:

While attending the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s graduate school for journalism and public relations in the late 1990s, Sally began a long career researching and writing about business, technical and scientific topics.

Her decades of experience as well as a passion to stay on top of the latest online tools and resources combine to help small businesses (and freelancers like herself) flourish.

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Mya Randloph
April 4, 2016 11:54 am

Ah this explains so much, thank you! I was trying to explain the difference between royalty free and stock images to my boss and how they are not one in the same. Will share this article with them and hopefully it can clarify for him and that all stock photos aren’t necessarily all royalty free.