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Understanding stock photography licensing


Different types of licenses can have different restrictions and allowed uses. Knowing the terms of your license is important to avoid legal issues. Not every image comes with the necessary licensing option to be used for all kinds of projects. You must understand which license connotes what rights and how to select the right image for your project.

But before we delve into that, let’s first understand the connotation of licensing.

Licensing is an agreement that you enter into with a stock photography agency to get the rights to use a photo (or video or illustration, as the case may be) for a specific purpose and duration.

A typical licensing agreement can have different restrictions allowing you to use a photo for a specific purpose and disallow other uses. For example, a photo can be made available for exclusive use for editorial purposes. That means the photographer has disallowed the use of the photo for any commercial purposes.

Similarly, a photo can be licensed for only print publications forbidding digital use. The purpose and the duration for which the photo is licensed can determine the amount of licensing fees involved.

Let’s look at some of these licensing terms.

Editorial use license

I have briefly introduced you to the concept of the editorial use license above. Editorial use license allows the use of an image for news purposes. These images usually depict newsworthy material, including current events. These images can have logos, identifiable materials associated with brands, and images of celebrities and other notable persons. However, these images can only be used in association with a news piece or for the purpose of illustrating a news piece. You cannot use these images for any commercial purposes.

Creative Commons license

The basic concept behind the Creative Commons license is to offer photographers of all types a reasonable (and simple) way to allow their photographs to be licensed. However, the Creative Commons license is mainly for non-commercial purposes only.

To use an image licensed under a Creative Commons license, a user (or a licensee) must give an attribute to the photographer.

There are six different types of Creative Commons licenses.


This is a type of Creative Commons license where the photographers grant the rights to a reuser to use their photos and even to distribute copies of the same, remix them, and use them to create derivatives in any medium and format. Even commercial usage of the photos can be allowed. However, the only condition to such extended use rights is to attribute the photographer.


This is a variation of the CC-BY license wherein the same rights and commercial rights are also given to the user. The only difference is that if the user is remixing the photo or adapting it in some form for use in a project or producing derivatives, they will have to license such modified, adapted, and remixed material under the same CC BY-SA terms.


This Creative Common license has a major difference compared to the other two I mentioned above. This license is for non-commercial uses only. The license, though, allows users to redistribute, remix, modify, and even create derivatives of the original image. However, the user cannot use these for commercial purposes, and they will have to attribute the image’s original creator.


This license is given for the non-commercial use of the images. The user is allowed to redistribute, adapt, modify, and create derivatives of the original work. However, no commercial purposes are allowed, and also the user is to attribute to the original user. Any modified material thus created by the user must be licensed under the same terms.


This is a simpler yet tighter set of restrictions. Any photo under this license can be used, copied, and distributed in any form or medium. However, the user cannot make any adaptations or derivatives. The image has to be used in an unadapted form. Additionally, the user has to attribute to the original creator.


This license allows users to copy and redistribute the photo they’re licensing in any form whatsoever as long as they’re attributing the original creator. However, the work has to be used in an unadapted form. Also, commercial usage is prohibited.


There is yet another Creative Commons license form that a creator can use to dedicate their work to the public domain. This is known as the CC0 or the Creative Commons Zero license. By doing so, they absolve themselves of their copyright to an image. When they do that, any user can use their photos, thus licensed, without attributing to the original creator. Such images can be used for commercial and other purposes.

Royalty-free license

The best thing about royalty-free licensing is that it’s extremely flexible. There are “almost” no strings attached to how you can use a royalty-free photo and for how long. All you have to do is take a one-time licensing of the image in question, and you’re free to use it for perpetuity. The reason I say almost is because stock photography agencies tend to put some restrictions on the duration and type of usage.

E.g., a stock agency may put a limit of 1 million copies on a print publication for the use of the image. It may also limit the use of the image in creating by-products like t-shirts or stickers that you can sell.

Royalty-free licensing is by far the most common form of image licensing because of the relative simplicity of the terms (barring the occasional restrictions on use). However, a major disadvantage of using royalty-free licensing is that you cannot get exclusive rights to use an image.

Royalty-free extended license

The royalty-free extended license was devised to give customers more freedom in terms of duration and the manner of use. So, things that you couldn’t do with a standard royalty-free license, such as large-scale printing or unlimited runs on advertisement or websites and producing by-products such as t-shirts in ways that are restricted in such a license, you can do all of those with a royalty-free extended license.

However, even royalty-free extended licensing does not guarantee exclusive use of an image you choose.

Rights managed

Rights managed is a restrictive form of image licensing that involves the buyer of an image stating their exact needs in terms of the intended use of an image and negotiating a licensing fee based on the terms of use.

For example, let’s say that a publishing company wants to use an image to publish a book. They intend to make a print-run of 100,000 copies of the book. They will have to mention the intended use, the print run estimated copies, the size of the image to be used, and, of course, details of the book. This information will help the Microstock agency determine the licensing fees for using the photo in question.

In many cases, this is done using a licensing fee calculator that asks for some relevant parameters and gives the required pricing on the fly. If the buyer has specific requirements that the online pricing calculator does not fulfill, they can contact the stock agency and get tailored pricing.

The main advantage of rights-managed licensing is that a buyer can buy exclusive rights to an image, potentially limiting the use of the image in a specific industry. This is preferred when the buyer wants exclusivity from the competition, especially when you plan on using an image to launch a new product or concept and want that exclusivity to your advantage.

Another big advantage of using a rights-managed photo for your project is that some stock companies keep extensive data on their rights-managed photos. When you’re looking to buy a rights-managed photo, you can dig into the usage history of an image that you’ve shortlisted. You can find all kinds of data as to the previous use of the photo. This can be invaluable when determining an image’s usability for your purpose.

Public domain

Images considered a part of the public domain are those of the creators who have absolved of their rights to such images. They could also include images whose copyright has expired. Anyone can use images in the public domain for commercial and non-commercial purposes. Additionally, the user does not even have to attribute the original creator.

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