By: Stocksy

A Guide to Stock Photography Licensing

Whether you’re a photographer or a stock media buyer, it’s easier than ever to license high-quality, creative stock media. It’s also more important than ever before to have a basic understanding of how licenses work. Below, we’ll take a look at a handful of common image licensing types, why they’re important, and how you can leverage them in your work.

What does royalty-free mean?

Royalty-free licensing is a current gold standard for stock photography and stock media websites. All Stocksy images fall under this umbrella. Under a royalty-free license, the buyer pays a one-time fee for the right to use the image, with some restrictions.

At Stocksy, a royalty-free license covers up to half a million copies in print, unlimited electronic impressions, and worldwide use for an unlimited time. After paying for the license, the buyer can use the same image across multiple projects and platforms, again and again without having to renegotiate the fee or re-license the photo.

This license model diverges from a rights-managed license, where the buyer agrees on exactly where and how the photo will be used, including the duration and territory of use and print versus digital use. In the case of right-managed images, the client then pays for exactly what they need, no more and no less. When the license runs out, the client will have to re-license the image and pay another fee. In short, rights managed is a one-stop-shop license for specific use cases.

Learn more about Stocksy license terms here

While you can find rights-managed stock photography licenses, it’s becoming increasingly rare. Royalty-free licenses are comparatively less restrictive and simplify the process for both the seller and the buyer, and are currently the preferred license option for most stock media users.

Stocksy also offers extended royalty-free licenses. These licenses differ from a standard royalty-free license in a few ways. First, they allow the buyer to create products for resale, which isn’t allowed under a standard royalty-free license. A client who plans to print and sell t-shirts, mugs, wallpapers, greeting cards, or other print-on-demand products using the photo, for instance, would opt for an extended rather than standard royalty-free license.

An extended license is also appropriate if you plan for unlimited printing (more than 500,000), though every royalty-free license comes with unlimited web use. At Stocksy, an extended license will also get you a multi-seat license, meaning that multiple individuals within the same organization can access and use the photo; it’s a good option when you’re working with a team of designers, for example.

Royalty-free vs. Copyright-free

When a stock media buyer purchases the right to use an image, the copyright remains with the photographer. A client will only own the copyright if the photographer gives it to them legally, through a work-for-hire contract or a copyright transfer.

For that reason, royalty-free images should not be confused with copyright-free images. Unlike photos in the public domain, which anyone can use for commercial or personal purposes, royalty-free photos aren’t free to use; the buyer won’t have to pay royalties, but they’ll have to pay to use the photo. Royalty-free stock photos can also come with restrictions you won’t encounter with public domain images; for instance, a standard royalty-free license does not give the buyer the right to resell the photo or create new works based on the photo.

At some point, you might also come across creative commons licenses, established in 2001 by the Creative Commons organization. In these cases, the licensee is required to provide attribution, and depending on the license, they may or may not be allowed to modify or distribute the image. Similarly, some creative commons images can be used commercially, and some cannot. With these licenses, the photographer can retain the copyright while allowing people to make use of their work free of charge.

Exclusive stock photography use

In stock media, non-exclusive licensing is common, so more than one client can purchase the rights to use the same image. For most clients, that works, but depending on the industry and the usage, some might prefer to purchase the right to use the image exclusively as there’s no risk of a competitor purchasing the same image.

At Stocksy, licensing a photo for exclusive use means purchasing a market freeze. Depending on the need, a market freeze means you can exclusively license any stock photo in the collection for six months, one year, two years, three years, four years, or five years. Clients who opt for a market freeze also receive complimentary licenses for multi-seat, unlimited print, and products for resale use.

What does ‘editorial use only’ mean?

Photos can be licensed for personal use, commercial use, or editorial use. Personal use applies to images you might buy for display at home, like a wedding album, fine art print, family greeting card, or gift. In this case, the purchaser can display and enjoy the images, but they don’t own the copyright and can’t resell them or use them for marketing a service or product.

Commercial use is reserved for an image licensed to sell or market something, like a product or service. It can include web or print images for ads, blogs, and more. In these cases, the client is usually a marketer, brand, or business.

Finally, an editorial image is used for informative purposes, usually by a news outlet or educational source. Images that are reserved for editorial use only cannot be used to sell or market anything, only to inform the public and illustrate stories of human interest.

All images, videos, and illustrations on Stocksy are model-released and appropriate for commercial use. However, many other stock photography platforms might sell royalty-free images restricted to editorial use only. These images don’t need to be model-released and must illustrate a relevant or newsworthy event. In that case, it’s the buyer’s responsibility to make sure they adhere to the licensing agreement and use the image only in the way it was intended.

In our digital age, understanding the basics of image licensing is crucial for stock photographers and stock media clients alike. While the nuances can seem like a complex math equation, it’s fairly straightforward: the license you choose determines how you can use the image. In stock photography, the most important terms to know are generally standard royalty-free licenses, extended licenses, and editorial versus commercial use. Those are more than likely going to be the only go-to’s you’ll need.


View Stocksy’s license terms and conditions

What qualifies as “Sensitive Use”?

Using Stock content for some subject matter requires a sensitive use license. The reasons for these requirements and limits are based on the impact on the models. The details of sensitive use will vary between providers so it’s always good to check.

At Stocksy, sensitive topics include sexual health, sexually transmitted infections (including HIV/AIDS), mental health concerns and disorders. We also require a written disclaimer on all medical uses of images featuring identifiable models.

Check out the tables below for our parameters you can reference and remember when building out a campaign that may have some potentially sensitive content.


Reach out to our support team for more information about sensitive use licenses or licensing of any kind at [email protected]

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