Restricted Uses for Royalty Free Stock Photos

Just as with the permitted uses, restrictions in usage of Royalty Free stock photos (or RF) varies from agency to agency, as each company sets their own terms.

That's why it's so important to read the license agreement carefully, and make sure you understand the allowed and the forbidden uses for the images.

To learn all about Royalty Free images, read here. 

Overall, these are the restricted uses that are standard to all agencies:

  • Large distributions or print runs – Most agencies limit the distribution or copies to 500.000 units (but this limit can vary as well), and larger volume usage requires of an Extended license.
  • Resale or redistribution as is, or use in a design theme, wallpaper, etc., intended for resale – an Extended license can grant rights to use in items for resale, but it's forbidden to resale, redistribute or gift the images just as it is.
  • Share with other users or place on a network, intranet, or drive with shared access – Only the person who owns the license (who purchased it) can access the image and work on it. To have more users accessing the licensed image before it's in use, you need multi-seat rights, which are sometimes available as Extended license.
  • Use on print-on-demand products (t-shirts, mugs, calendars, mouse pads, etc.)
  • Use in prints, posters, or greeting cards for resale – You can only use RF stock photos in these items for promotional purposes, but not if the items are sold. An Extended license can grant you rights to use the image in items for resale.
  • As part of a trademark, design-mark, or logo – As the license doesn't transfer you the ownership of the image, you cannot use it in any graphic work that you intend to register legally under your name.
  • Use in unsolicited email marketing campaigns (ie, Spam)
  • Post the image to be downloaded or accessed separately from its intended application – You cannot use the image in any way that allows other users to download it or access it as it is, independent from your design or use.
  • Illegal, pornographic, malicious, or defamatory uses – Stock photos cannot be used in any sensitive way. This includes but it's not limited to illegal activities, pornographic or adult-related concepts, and other morally questionable uses.
  • Photos with people/models cannot be used in a way that depicts them as endorsing a product or business, or in a way that may be considered offensive – This also refers to the sensitive use: you cannot use stock photos that include people in a way that associates their likeness to a product, business or service, nor in any way that may be considered as depicting them negatively. This includes illegal activities, pornographic or adult-related themes, political propaganda, health campaigns, and more.
  • When used for Editorial purposes, the stock photo supplier and artist/photographer must be credited
  • Other limits are defined by individual stock photo companies

These usage restrictions might be a turn-down when you first learn about them, but they are implemented to protect the rights of the image copyright holder and of the models whose likeness is depicted in the images.

Plus, many of the usage restrictions can be eliminated by acquiring an Extended license that adds the rights to use the images in a way that the Standard RF license doesn't allow.

Something important to remember is that when you buy a license, you're buying the right to use the image, not the ownership of the image itself. The copyright of the photos remain with the artists or photographers who created them.

Always make sure to read the Terms of Use for any royalty free image you wish to purchase, to ensure you are using the images in a legal and accepted way.

To find the best places to buy Royalty Free images cheap, check out this awesome list of the Best Stock Photo Sites in the market!

Amos Struck
  1. Am I right to assume that using the photos bought from Royalty Free Image sites in public photography competitions whilst falsely stating that they are the entrants own photos is illegal?
    If so then some photographer’s who sell these images are unknowingly having copyrights broken.
    I would appreciate confirmation of this if possible please.

    • Hi there, first of all I’m not a lawyer therefore I can not give you a final answer. As far as I understand the most licenses of Royalty Free Stock Agencies it is not OK to use the photos in such competitions.

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