The stock image issue: Is your company playing by the rules?

Learn about licensing agreements from someone who actually reads the fine print

Adi Ofir
8 min readAug 9, 2018

If your company has ever done any marketing, chances are you’ve used stock images at some point. But let’s be honest here, have you ever read the fine print to see if there are rules or limitations on how you may use the images? Unfortunately, licensing and copyright infringement are some of the most common issues I’ve seen in the design and digital industries. That’s why it’s important to know where your service provider or employees are getting their resources from. Some due diligence and awareness of common licensing restrictions can go a long way in protecting your company from fines and legal blunders down the line.

First off, let’s review some basic points about images: If you want to use an image that you didn’t shoot yourself, you must purchase a license or get the photographer’s permission to use it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen people take an image from a Google search result and use it commercially. I’ve seen many companies over the years make this mistake and unknowingly steal images. If you found a random image on Google, it probably belongs to someone, and I don’t recommend using it.

🎉 Okay, got it, I’ll stop stealing images from Google. So where should I get stock images from?

There are plenty of stock photography websites to choose from. You can purchase licenses for photos, graphics, and videos for your company’s marketing materials at a reasonable price. Here are some popular options: Shutterstock, iStock, Thinkstock, BigStock, Adobe Stock (notice a common theme here?), Masterfile and Getty.

Most stock photography companies have a simple one-time fee per image license, while others have image packs, credits and subscriptions. License fees range from less than $15, to hundreds of dollars depending on the image, distributer, and type of license you require.

🔎 What types of licenses are there?

There are two main types of image licenses — royalty-free and rights-managed. For royalty-free images, you pay a one-time license fee and you can use the image for nearly anything, with some minor limitations. For example, if you’re using a stock image for a print design, you may be limited to a certain number of prints under a basic royalty-free license. There may also be a restriction on how many people can use or have access to the original licensed image (we’ll get back to these restrictions). Most stock photography companies have options for enhanced licenses if you need to go beyond the limitations under the basic license.

For rights-managed images, there are usually way more limitations, such as the length of time you may use the image for, what modifications you may do to the image, the distribution, and how or where exactly you can use it. For this reason, I recommend using royalty-free images whenever possible. But in either case, always read the fine-print in the license agreement.

🤔 What is an End-User Licence Agreement (EULA)?

Stock images, graphics, videos and even fonts usually come with an End-User License Agreement (EULA) that you can find on the distributor’s website. This agreement details all the different types of licenses they have, and any rules and restrictions you must follow. When I purchase an image license on behalf of a client, I send them a receipt along with a link to the vendor’s website so they can read the EULA first-hand. The exact details of these agreements vary from company to company, and that’s why it’s so important to know where your service provider gets their resources from. You’ll need to verify the details in the EULA. More specifically, you want to know:

a) whether the images and other resources used in your project are actually licensed;

b) if you should buy a separate license under your company name so you can use the original image files later; and

c) if there are any limitations with that license.

💸 Is there such thing as “free” images?

Numerous websites have popped up over the years with high quality stock images that are free for commercial use under the Creative Commons (CC) license. If you don’t have a budget to purchase stock images, these can be a great resource. Personally, I’m somewhat on the fence with these sites. Several times now I’ve seen images on paid stock photography websites, and then I’ve come across the same images on other sites that are free for commercial use. When I see this, it makes me wonder if these particular images are really free at all. I suppose it’s possible that the photographer decided to give their image away for free after previously charging license fees for it. But it’s also possible that an image was passed around so many times that eventually it found its way onto a stock image website that is free for commercial use. Furthermore, your use case may require a signed release from the models in the photos, and it could be difficult to verify whether the original photographer obtained this.

✋ Common licensing violations

These are the two restrictions commonly found in licensing agreements that may accidentally be violated without proper due diligence. Here’s how to avoid these blunders.

  1. Restrictions on how many printed or online impressions are allowed before you have to pay additional fees. Let’s say you’ve purchased an image license for an advertising campaign, and the distributor allows for 500,000 printed impressions containing the image under the basic license. You now have to keep track of the circulation of all the magazines you’re running it in (i.e. how many actual magazines are printed). Now, suppose you decide to run that campaign again a few months later, this time on a few trains, a billboard and a bus stop. That’s a lot of numbers to keep track of over a period of time. Similarly, if there are limitations on the number of online impressions for a stock image, you’ll have to keep track of webpage or online ad views. On the upside, basic image licenses tend to come with generous allowances. Read the EULA to find out the exact amounts, and then compare it with the distribution or audience size of your campaign. If you plan to use an image on a massive scale such as a national or global campaign, it’s probably a good idea to get the upgraded image license from the start.
  2. Restrictions to the number of people who may use the licensed images (or videos and other graphics). Let’s say you’re working with a design, digital or ad agency on a project and they licensed the stock images to their own company rather than yours. You may be allowed to use the completed design or product without your own company license, but there are a few caveats you should be aware of:

i) If there’s a restriction on the number of people who are allowed to use the original image, you may have to get another license if you want a copy of that original image. EULAs don’t always allow for licenses to be transferred, and I’ve seen companies thoughtlessly send images over to their clients, so they can use these resources as well. That really does a disservice to the client because they’re now using unlicensed copyrighted images for their business without realizing it! 🤦‍♀️

ii) If your design, digital or ad agency licensed the stock images to their own company, they may be allowed to reuse these images on projects for other clients as well (although some EULAs limit it to one client per license). If there are restrictions on the number of printed or online impressions and your service provider is using the same image for more than one client, they now have to keep track of the total number of impressions from each use case and client. 😳 That’s a lot to keep track of! In this case, you might want to avoid the hassle and purchase your own license.

📷 What if I hire a photographer?

I almost always recommend hiring a photographer when there’s a budget for it. With an original photo you can get exactly what you’re looking for, and you don’t run the risk of a competitor coincidentally using the same image. I always explain to clients that since we don’t get exclusive rights to the royalty-free stock images we license, there’s a small chance that another company will use the image at the same time. It’s like showing up to a party wearing the same outfit as someone else. I once used a stock image in a marketing campaign for a company in the construction industry, and then a few months later, Kings of Leon (a popular American rock band), coincidentally used the same image on an album cover. Fortunately, Kings of Leon is not a competitor and they happen to be a pretty awesome band. Yet still, some companies may be uncomfortable with the risk of a competitor or a company they don’t want to be associated with coincidentally using the same photo. If that’s the case, I recommend hiring a photographer for an original shoot. Alternatively, you can look for a rights-managed stock image that offers exclusivity.

If you do hire a photographer, this doesn’t necessarily change the ballgame in terms of licensing. When you commission a photo, the photographer doesn’t sell you the image; they may only sell you a license to use the image. The license may be for exclusive and unlimited use in perpetuity. Or, it may be for a limited time in a limited way (i.e. a rights-managed image). These details should be clarified in a written agreement before you begin the project so you can be aware of any additional fees down the line.

With that said, if you hire a photographer for a head shot, you probably want to make sure you have the right to do whatever you want with your own photo. But if you’re hiring a photographer for a marketing campaign, you may be comfortable with a license to use the images for a limited time with limited circulation online/offline. You just want to make sure you have exclusive rights to the image in general, or exclusive rights to it for the time that you are using it.

🤹‍♀️ A word to the wise

I know how quickly things move when you’re running a business. People don’t always stop to consider whether they can or can’t use an image they already have on file. A year later you may decide to use a rights-managed image on another communication piece, and then — oops! You’ve violated your agreement with the photographer or stock image distributor. I know the majority of these cases are just an oversight or miscommunication, but they can be costly mistakes that affect your relationship with that service provider. So, if you commission a photoshoot or purchase a stock image, find out what exactly you’re paying for and think about how that will affect things in the long run. The photographers I’ve worked with in the past have all sent their fees upfront, so my clients know what they’re paying for and if there are any other fees or limitations they may have in the future.

🎯 The takeaways

For any communication materials your company produces, always ask your service provider and employees where they get their images, fonts and any other graphics from. Always read the EULA to see if you should buy a separate license under your own company name, and make sure you have the correct license for your usage.