A Closer Look at Image Licensing

Branding, Marketing, Print, Website Design & Development

Read Time: 5 Min

The Internet is a wonderful tool that makes it easy to find photos of just about anything you desire. Want a puppy photo? Just Google “puppies” and you’ll be presented with a plethora of the most adorable furry friends. But what if you wanted to use that photo on your blog or in your company brochure? Not so fast.

That perfect image you just found is likely protected by a copyright, and you will need to license it before you can legally use it. Those who skirt the rules and use images or stock content without a license are infringing on the artist’s copyright and can be in for a big surprise and some hefty fines.

Unless you are working with an artist or photographer and negotiating the terms of the licensing contract directly, you’re probably licensing content through a third-party vendor. Most vendors will have standard licensing agreements, as well as a number of extended or enhanced licensing options. Licenses differ for each vendor, so it’s important to read them and ensure your intended use of the content is not violating the terms of the license.


Four Types of Image Licenses

1. Rights-Managed

License to use the content in a specific way. Typically, this includes restrictions on the duration of use, the medium, the size, the format, location, and often the number of impressions per use (whether print impressions or page views in digital applications). The advantage to rights-managed stock content is that you may negotiate exclusivity—meaning no one else may use the content while you are licensing it—but this can be expensive.

2. Royalty-Free

Non-exclusive license for a standard fee (or a package fee such as a certain amount for a certain number of images). The fee varies according to supplier, and often comes with restrictions for use somewhat similar to rights-managed, but often not as strict.

3. Editorial

Editorial images may not be used for any commercial purposes, and include photos of celebrities, politicians, sports personalities or events, or current events. They are strictly for editorial publications and media such as news programming. Editorial images are usually marked as such on stock photo sites.

4. Free (kind of)

Public Domain, copyright-free, or simple licenses such as the Creative Commons Zero (CC0) license allow the use of the content for any lawful purpose. Read the license carefully for these, as they often include provisions such as providing the artist credit for use of the content.


Common Image License Restrictions

There are generally a number of standard restrictions attached to the license. Again, these vary by vendor, so make certain you are aware of the restrictions enforced by your particular vendor. Here are a few restrictions you may encounter:

No unlawful use

Prohibits use of content in unsavory, defamatory, or any other unlawful manner.

No commercial use of editorial content

Prohibits editorial content use in any commercial, promotional, advertorial, endorsement, advertising, or merchandising purpose.

No alteration of editorial content

Prohibits retouching or modification of editorial content to protect the integrity of the content.

No standalone file use

Prohibits use in any way that allows others to download, extract, or redistribute content as a standalone file.

No false representation of authorship

Prohibits claiming authorship of work based solely on licensed content.

No sensitive use without a disclaimer

Prohibits using content in a manner that would be unflattering or unduly controversial to a reasonable person. You must indicate: (1) that the content is being used for illustrative purposes only, and (2) any person depicted in the content is a model.


Extended and Enhanced Image Licenses

I can use the image for anything once I’ve paid for it, right? Wrong. Purchasing a stock content license does now allow you to use the content in perpetuity or in any situation. Extended or enhanced licenses may be required for many intended uses, such as:

On-demand Products

Use of customized on-demand products such as mugs, t-shirts, calendars, etc. without an additional license.


Use in any print or electronic templates intended for resale or other distribution.

Trademark or Logo

Use of content in a trademark, design mark, trade name, business name, service mark, or logo.

Enhanced licenses can greatly extend the use limitations of your stock content and offer greater legal indemnity protection—at a cost. One vendor we surveyed charged nearly 4 times more for an extended image license than a standard one. If you are unsure about whether the intended use of your content requires an extended license, check with your vendor.


(Mostly) Free Images

If you’re on a tight budget, there are many simple licenses or copyright-free options on the web. As always, there can be some restrictions, so make sure to check what is permitted and required before using.


Pexel offers high-quality stock imagery under the Creative Commons Zero (CC0) license. The images are free to use for any lawful purpose.


Unsplash grants you non-exclusive copyright license to copy, modify, and use photos for free, including commercial purposes.

Thousands of vintage, copyright-free, and public domain images.


Hundreds of images with minimal restrictions. They only ask that the content isn’t used in inappropriate or defamatory materials.

Library of Congress

Library of Congress provides access to an enormous amount of historical photographs, maps, videos, periodicals and other printed materials in the public domain. The site allows you to search by any number of criteria, and the licensing info for each item is clearly listed.


What’s the best option for me?

We recommend our clients hire a photographer when time and budget allows (see more about the advantages here). Ultimately, the photos will more authentically represent you and your business than stock ever could.

If a photographer is not in your budget, stock imagery is a useful, affordable, and readily-available option. Just make sure you check the fine print before purchasing or using any stock content.


See our recent work here. And don’t hesitate to reach out

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