Royalty free images are a bit of a dichotomy. They are both free and not free at the same time. While royalty free images offer a broad umbrella of free uses for designers, the images themselves are not inherently free.
With the explosion of RF images on the web, it is important to understand the facts about royalty free images. “Royalty free” by definition means free from royalties – that is, not requiring payment each time an image is used. “Without royalty” would be another way to put it.
So, are royalty free images free?
Yes and no. In order to understand the answer, it is important to separate the image from the license. They are separate entities.
Free for use
RF images are free in that, once you have acquired the license you are able to use the image multiple times and for almost any purpose without having to pay. Acquiring the license may require a fee be paid, depending on the source. Stock agencies charge a fee for royalty free images, while free image sites or independent photographers may offer the license at no charge.
RF images are NOT free because there are certain restrictions built-in to the RF license. Again, it is important to separate the image from the license. The RF license allows free USE of the image, but the image itself is not free. The image copyright still belongs to the photographer, regardless of where you obtained the photo or what price you did or did not pay for it.