Beginner’s Guide to Using Royalty-Free Images for Commercial Use
With millions of images, illustrations, and stock video just a few clicks away, we’re living in a golden age for graphic design. You can find a compelling, unique image to express nearly any mood or concept.
But every image created by someone else comes with restrictions on how it can be used. If you find this part of graphic design confusing, you aren’t alone. Terms like “royalty-free,” “copyright-free,” “commercial use,” and others are complex and don’t necessarily have clear definitions.
Here is some good, practical guidance: Anytime you use an image for a business project, it is ideal that the image comes with a royalty-free license.
With a royalty-free image, you’re protecting yourself and your company against a wide variety of claims or even lawsuits, and you’re making sure creators get paid for their work. It’s smart business, and it’s the right thing to do.
A royalty-free image lets you design with confidence — not in fear of legal action.
What Are Royalty-Free Images?
Royalty-free images are a special category of images that come with a unique license. Individuals and businesses can license a royalty-free image once, then use that image in perpetuity without having to renew the license.
Other licenses are often more like a short-term rental — you’re only allowed to use the image for a specific length of time, and for a very specific negotiated use. If the license expires, you’ll have to track down the photographer or illustrator of the image and negotiate a new license so you can keep using it.
Not very practical, right?
When you download a royalty-free image, you pay for a license that allows you to use the image for your project now and in the future. As long as you aren’t violating the terms of the license, you can keep the image on your website or in your training manual for as long as you want, and you’ll never have to worry about getting sued. (Legal action over images happens more than you might think!)
The Best Projects for Royalty-Free Images
You can find royalty-free photographs and vector images to help you with nearly all creative projects. A strong, compelling image will make your collateral stand out in a sales presentation, keep your blog post more engaging, and enhance your overall brand story.
Royalty-free images are a low-cost option for projects that need to make a big business impact. In the world of Facebook and Instagram, quality visuals are no longer a nice-to-have. They are a business necessity.
Consider royalty-free images when you are designing projects such as social media ads, sales brochures, in-store displays, corporate presentations, and blog posts.
Social Media Ads
Strong visuals are super-important on social media because your content is up against everything from celebrity vacations to friends’ baby photos. Stunning, royalty-free images from leading creators can get people clicking and sharing.
What does a high-quality image say about your product? You already know the answer. With royalty-free images from top photographers, your sales team can blow their goals out of the water.
Royalty-free images are key ingredients for compelling in-store displays. Shoppers won’t only notice your display — they’ll stop to admire it.
What will your executive put up on that giant conference room screen? The same old boring presentation titles, or something that represents your modern, dynamic brand? Make your CEO’s audience sit up straight with gorgeous images like these.
Help your content creators break the Internet by enhancing blog posts with stuffing imagery. Eye-catching imagery makes web pages more readable and actionable. On text-heavy content like blog posts, images will help you rank higher and keep folks reading.
Why pay for stock images just for a blog post? Because that blog post could be someone’s first interaction with your brand. Professional imagery makes a professional impression. And, consider the alternative — the cost of hiring a photographer is much, much higher.
Edit Royalty-Free Images to Fit Your Needs
Royalty-free images are made for creators. In most cases, you can crop, retouch, recolor, or alter royalty-free images however you choose.
Free images often come in one size only. If you try to crop them or zoom in, they look terrible. And simple changes like flipping a photo or changing a color may violate the license terms.
What Types of Projects May Require Additional Royalty-Free Licensing?
The standard royalty-free license may not be valid for certain extremely high-value design efforts. Examples include brand identity assets, products for sale, or large-scale print jobs.
Massive Print Runs or Unlimited Print Runs
Just like any license, a royalty-free license has limits. If you are planning a massive print run — like an ad running in a national magazine — you should check your license. At iStock, we offer an Unlimited reproduction license on products or print runs of more than 500,000 copies.
Products for Resale
Standard royalty-free licenses may not allow you to resell a product you create that prominently features a licensed image. One example of resale would be labeling a physical product (say, putting the image on a mug and selling it online). Another example would be including the image in a downloadable digital product, like an e-book or design template. iStock offers a Products for resale license to cover these situations.
Product packaging is another project that may not be appropriate for a standard royalty-free license. The license may limit the number of times you can use the image, and if the product gets really popular, you could have to change the packaging because you exceed the limit. Again, iStock offers an Unlimited reproduction license for packaging that will be printed more than 500,000 times.
What Types of Projects May Be Prohibited?
Certain projects or uses may be considered a violation of a royalty-free image license.
Using royalty-free imagery in a logo is often prohibited. It’s also just a bad idea. A logo should be unique, and it won’t be if anyone else can use the same stock image. Logos are often trademarked, and the trademark may be invalid if it contains someone else’s image. For these reasons, iStock prohibits the use of our images in logos.
Pornographic, Obscene, or Libelous Content
Your royalty-free license will likely prohibit certain uses. At iStock, the use of royalty-free images for pornographic, obscene, or libelous content is not allowed. Other royalty-free stock photo sites have the same stipulation.
Does Royalty-Free Mean Free for Commercial Use?
An image that is royalty-free is not necessarily free for commercial use — that is, any use that could lead to buying or selling something. The most reliable image services require you to pay a fee for a license that allows you to use the image for commercial or non-commercial uses, as long as you follow the terms.
Even with a royalty-free image license, some commercial activities are prohibited. You may need a special license to use the image in products for resale — like a product or digital download.
Can I Use Royalty-Free Images for Commercial Use?
Whether you can use royalty-free images for commercial use depends on the terms of your download license. If you aren’t sure, you should contact the company that provided the image. Never assume an image is royalty-free.
The three main types of licenses are:
- Content fully released for commercial use
- Content without releases that can be used for commercial purposes
- Editorial-use only content
Content Fully Released for Commercial Use
Before you use an image, it is ideal to have a signed release for any recognizable people, places, or things.
- Recognizable people ideally should sign a release if you plan to use a photo of them for commercial use.
- For any photos that show private property, restricted access areas, or ticketed entry locations, you must have a signed release to use those photos for commercial use.
- And any objects that appear in the photo may have copyright or trademark rights that prohibit you from using the photo without permission (for example, a person wearing a t-shirt with a brand logo on it).
Be very careful about using any image for commercial use. When sourcing content from other platforms, be mindful that even if the photographer allows “free” use of the photo, that doesn’t mean that further approvals aren’t required. You could be exposing yourself, your employer, or your clients to legal action if a photo isn’t fully released.
Content Without Releases That Can Be Used for Commercial Purposes
Images and illustrations that show objects, animals, or unidentifiable people don’t require releases.
For example, the photo below shows people, but an effect blurs their faces. Since none of the faces can be recognized and it’s in a public place, this photo does not require model or property releases.
Editorial-Use Only Content
Editorial use only photos are photos that may include people, private property, branding, or artwork for which no release has been granted for commercial uses.
Because there isn’t a release, you aren’t permitted to use the image for any commercial, promotional, advertorial, or endorsement design projects.
You can use these images to illustrate non-commercial projects, such as blog posts, newsletter articles, or academic papers.
Are Royalty-Free Images Free?
Royalty-free images are not free in a monetary sense. Creators invest money and time in the content they make and deserve to be compensated.
Typically, image libraries have legal agreements with content creators that allow image services to grant royalty-free licenses to their customers. The content creators are compensated when those licenses are granted. In return, the creators grant the company the right to provide customers with a royalty-free license.
For “free” sites, are you sure the content was created intentionally to make it available that way? Read the fine print – are there any legal warranties? If a claim happens, will the site help you resolve it?
Copyright owners have exclusive rights to say when their works are published, displayed, reproduced, and when derivatives can be made. If you don’t have the proper license, the creator could have the legal right to pursue a copyright infringement claim and seek damages for every single use of the image.
Where Can I Get Free Royalty-Free Images?
For free royalty-free images, we recommend freeimages.com. These royalty-free images are licensed for personal and commercial use.
While the free royalty-free images at freeimages.com will save you money, you won’t have the same selection and quality that you’ll see from images on iStock. You’ll also need to read any applicable terms very carefully. No cost licenses usually don’t offer any indemnification or warranties.
Also, consider that these images are free and lots of people use them. The image you pick for your company’s web site might also appear on hundreds of others.
Is Royalty-Free the Same as Copyright-Free?
Whether royalty-free is the same as copyright-free depends on what “copyright-free” means to you, and whether you plan to use an image in accordance with its license.
For example, images with a Creative Commons copyright license can be adapted or reused for other creative projects without requiring a license. However, there are multiple Creative Commons licenses. Some prohibit commercial use entirely. Others require a photo credit even for non-commercial uses. And Creative Commons will not provide guarantees that your image has the right permissions or monetary protection in case you face legal action.
In any case, copyright is only one kind of right you need to consider when sourcing content – if there are recognizable people, places, and things in the image, you may need additional permissions depending on the use.
Where Can I Find Copyright-Free Images?
Images that are in the public domain are sometimes considered to be “copyright-free.” Some content was created so long ago that it is no longer under copyright. Some artists donate their art to the public before the copyright would otherwise expire. And certain government agencies make their content available for all to use.
But it can be challenging to determine what’s in the public domain and what’s not. Even if the content is in the public domain, additional permissions may be required for commercial use.
Copyright duration has many variables depending on where the image was created, when and if it was ever registered, and permissions related to what the image shows. Government agencies may require photo credit.
The fact is, you’re rolling the dice anytime you use an image without a license from a reputable company.
For more information about using royalty-free images on iStock, visit our royalty-free images page. If you’re ready to start designing with confidence, go ahead and find the perfect stock photo, vectors, and more for your project.