Using Stock Photos Legally

Stock photos are a great way to make your website, blog, newsletter, and other marketing materials stand out. However, if you’re not aware of the legalities surrounding the use of stock photos, you could find yourself having to take down the photos and start over with your website—or even paying hefty fines.

So, what is the proper use of stock photography? That depends on the type of license attached to the photos, and what rights you’ve obtained.

Stock Photos Royalty free: Is it really free?

A royalty-free license is the most popular type for stock images, and is typically the most affordable. Once you obtain the license for a royalty-free image, you can use it as many times as you’d like, for just about any purpose, without paying extra costs in the form of royalties.

However, royalty-free doesn’t always mean completely free. Some stock image companies provide free, unlimited usage photos, while others charge a one-time licensing fee for royalty-free use. Often, paid RF stock photos are better quality than free licenses, making them worth the investment.

It’s important to remember that while the RF license allows for free usage, the image itself is not free. The copyright always remains with the photographer.

Rights managed: Exclusivity at a price

While licenses for royalty-free stock images can be given or sold to many people at once, a rights-managed license grants you exclusive use of an image for a set period of time. This type of license is most often used for “print runs” of products like books, calendars, T-shirts, mugs, and greeting cards, where the business wants to make sure that no other companies are using the same image. Rights-managed images help to prevent brand dilution.

Typically, a rights-managed license is granted for use with a single project, for a set period of time. There are also often geographical restrictions with rights-managed images.

Extended or enhanced licenses: Greater flexibility for multiple uses

In some cases, usually for royalty-free stock photos, you can get an enhanced or extended license that lets you get more out of the image rights. Most RF licenses don’t allow image use for commercial or resale purposes, such as the promotional items we mentioned under rights-managed licenses. Extended licenses can grant commercial rights to an image.

Additionally, RF licenses may not permit you to manipulate the images—often, they must be reproduced intact. An enhanced license could allow for photo manipulation.

The rights granted under extended or enhanced image licenses vary from company to company—or from photographer to photographer—so be sure to read the fine print before moving forward with your project.

Powerful marketing tools for your business

When used properly, stock photos serve to enhance your business image and attract more customers. Don’t let the legality of stock images dissuade you from using them. Just be aware of what licensing rights you’re purchasing (or getting for free), and stay within proper use.

A few good sites to obtain royalty-free stock images are Pixabay at and Adobe Stock at


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