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Graphic Design

Understanding Royalty-free Photography

typo Apr 11

Stock or royalty-free photography is gaining popularity as a resource for designers, publishers and web gurus to optimize their visual presentations. The immediate availability of millions of online images saves time and the expense of hiring photographers. But royalty-free media is not necessarily free of charge nor does it mean that the image is in the public domain. Some stock photography can be acquired for a one-time-only fee and other images may be available without any fee. The differences in fees depend on the image library’s terms of use and contributor agreements.

Stock photography is called royalty-free because once an image has been acquired from a stock photography library according to the preset terms it can be used repeatedly without owing royalties to the image creator.

There are licensing agreements specific to each image library and each individual image called rights managed license. These set guidelines for how the image may be used.

Often photographers allow their work to be used on websites and presentations as part of an overall design as long as those applications meet certain standards (non-pornographic for instance).

There are other licenses that allow purchasers to resell the image on a certain number of promotional materials such as 100,000 post cards.

The licenses are detailed and specific allowing extensive freedom of image use while protecting the photographer’s work.

Even though royalties are not due with each image use, the image copyright or intellectual ownership remains with the creator, or in some instances with the image library. This means that the photographer retains the credit rights not the purchaser.

So “royalty-free” stock photography extends the right to use an image according to set terms that eliminate future licensing fees or royalties.

This does not mean that an image may be used without payment.

There are many free images available from stock photography libraries. These images require no upfront fee and no future royalties. Once again, the image creator still retains the copyright or intellectual ownership to the image.

These are not public domain images, instead they are images offered by the photographer for use without fees or royalties. Usually the intention of allowing people to use images for free is to establish a portfolio. Crediting the photographer is the payment as this promotes their creative work.

An example of a fee-based royalty-free stock photography library is iStockphoto®. This is an international collection of over 1,500,000 royalty-free images including photographs, vector illustrations and flash files.

It is free to become a member and there are no subscription fees. The only fees associated with iStockphoto® are for downloaded images. These are extremely reasonable, starting at just $1 per file.

Contributors to iStock receive a percentage of each download. The amount depends on their status at iStockphoto® gained through number of contributions, downloads, etc.

Anyone can apply to become a contributor and sell their work on iStock. The application process involves sending samples of photographs or vector illustrations in for approval. These are then reviewed and a determination is made if the work meets iStockphoto expectations and requirements. Once approved, contributors can upload files, sell the images to designers through the iStock library and earn royalties on image downloads.

The work on iStock is protected by a watermark because although royalty-free, the terms of iStock’s licenses require that a one-time fee is paid. Using a photograph from iStock with the watermark intact is a copyright infringement.

An example of a fee-free stock photography site is Morguefile. Images in this stock library may be used free of charge. However, reselling the image is not allowed and the photographs are still the intellectual property of their respective owners.

The photographers at Morguefile have granted a usage license without fees or royalties. The creator has the right to do anything with the image including removing it from the free stock website and selling it themselves.

Whenever searching for images in stock photography libraries it is important to read the terms of usage, license agreements and understand how the image may be used, where it may be used, how often and how it should be credited.

It is also paramount to remember that photographers contributing to stock image libraries are providing incredible products at extremely low or no cost to the user. Even if the terms of usage do not require the creator to be credited, it is an expected courtesy and vital to the photographer’s career development as the image is their property and you are just granted the right to use it.

It can be time-consuming to wade through the legal jargon of royalty-free photography but they are fairly simple principles. The biggest clue between free and royalty-free with fees: the watermark! If the image you “download” has a watermark through it that’s a glaring sign that the image was acquired through improper means and that there is a copyright associated.

If in doubt it’s always best to contact the creator or the image library.