Royalty Free or Rights Managed? Best Comparative Guide

Royalty Free (RF) and Rights Managed (RM) are the two most commonly used licensing models in stock photography industry.

Getty Images Rights Managed service is one of the most renowned around the world, and one certainly worth checking if you're after high-end imagery. And many other agencies are famous for their Royalty Free offers of professional, high quality images. You can see a detailed list of them in this awesome Guide to the Best Stock Photo Sites. 

But these licensing models are very different from each other, and each has its own pros and cons. Understanding their differences and best applications is very important to make sure you have the right license for your needs, and that you will make the best out of stock photos in your projects, and meet your goals.

Basic Differences in Royalty Free and Rights Managed

Royalty Free license grants non-exclusive, unlimited and multiple use of an image, with few restrictions. It's a one-time fee that allows perpetual use of the image in all the permitted ways. You can then use the licensed material for your own company, website or for advertisement. These licensed images are usually called royalty-free images and are different to rights managed images (below you find more info about it).

Due to the non-exclusivity that allows to sell as many licenses to the same photo as buyers are willing to buy, images sold under RF license are widely distributed across stock photo agencies, and priced at low (and flat) rates. For this reason they are also often in use by different people, companies and brands at the same time, in different ways. See more details Royalty Free images here.

Rights Managed license provides time and geographically limited, specific and per-use rights to use an image, and often times also grants exclusive usage during the licensed period. The license only covers the consigned use, so to use the image in any different way, a new license is needed. This license includes digital rights management and basic rights management.

The price for the license depends on the specifics of intended use, sometimes it turns out affordable, and others it can get considerably expensive. Due to the more detailed buying process, and the custom-set, specific rights a buyer acquires over an RM image, these tend to be less widely available, and for the same reason they don't have so many duplicates in use simultaneously. Learn more about Rights Managed license here.

Best Agencies to Buy Royalty Free Images

RF images are the core of microstock industry. There's many different agencies in this space, and they all have their own pricing points, although there are no significant price gaps: in average, an RF image in microstock can cost between $1 and $15 buying on demand, and between $0.20 and $1 with a stock photo subscription.

But here are the best offers in Royalty Free stock photos:

StockPhotoSecrets Shop:StockPhotoSecrets-300 Our agency offers over 4 million RF images and two different annual stock photo subscriptions designed and tailored to serve small-to-medium sized businesses specifically. 99club is the cheapest option, offering 200 XXL images per year for only $99. For more images, we have a limited-time offer, Low Volume plan, giving 600 XXL images per year for $199. To seize this offers, go to StockPhotoSecrets Shop now! One of the cheapest royalty-free images provider.


Shutterstock: This is one of the top and most popular microstock agencies. With a collection of over 88 Million RF images, they provide subscriptions and on demand image packs at super low prices. You can learn all about their offer in this dedicated article on Shutterstock Pricing. And you can Sign Up for Shutterstock for Free here. If you want to save in your purchases, you can use this special Shutterstock Coupon Code.


iStock (previously iStockphoto): Also amongst the most popular microstock sites, iStock adds value to their huge library of millions of RF images with a careful curation: they divide their offer in everyday budget images, and high-quality images that are exclusive to their agency. Images from these collections can be bought with credits on demand or subscriptions. Click here to Sign Up with iStock for free. And you can benefit in your purchases with this special iStock Promo Code.

You can also learn more about the latter two companies and their pros and cons in iStock vs. Shutterstock: Clash of the Stock Photo Titans, a comprehensive comparative review.

Yes, RF works well for small local businesses. But for larger, national-reach (or global) companies and higher-visibility projects it can be much more suitable to choose a RM license. The buying process can be a bit more complex, and the license can be quite expensive in comparison to Royalty Free. But it comes with the assurance that you, and only you, will be using the image for as long as you have agreed and paid to use it. We also recommend that you as the licensor read the agreement for own safety and peace of mind.

Best Agency to Buy Rights Managed Images

RM licenses are mostly used by traditional stock photography agencies. There's also many of them in the industry, but only one of them stands out as the most renowned company in the space, and that's our recommended agency for RM licensing:


Getty Images: This company has been leading in stock photography for over 20 years now. They have a huge global network of partners and suppliers, feeding their huge collections with millions of images for every possible buyer needs. Their prices are not always the most affordable, but their prestige and reputation assure you high quality and seriousness in your stock photo licenses. You can visit Getty Images here. And now you can save in your Getty Images purchases, saving up to 30% with their new Ultrapacks.

How to Choose Which License to Use?

Price is not remotely the only factor to consider when it comes to deciding which license to buy to use stock photos in your projects.

Evaluating your needs and goals with stock photos is also very important. Defining the usage scenario helps to identify the suitability of each license type.

The Issue with Exclusivity

Royalty Free is a popular choice now.  Its lower prices and multiple usage rights can be appealing to buyers. but the counter-side of that is that the images under RF license are usually widely distributed, and as they are non-exclusive, many buyers can license them at the same time.

One could think that given most microstock agencies have collections with millions of RF stock photos, that'd grant that buyers won't buy the same images. But the truth is most stock agencies prevail the best quality and most popular images in their search results, making that most buyers end up choosing from a reduced pool of images and often choose the same ones.

In fact, finding and exhibiting cases of companies and brands using the same stock photos has turned into a popular blog pass-time topic, because some of the coincidences are rather odd and funny…

Non-exclusivity and Brand Diluting: Funny, but Not Funny

A very popular case of coincidence in stock photos usage is one between Gateway and Dell years ago. Both companies used the exact same photo of a girl in a university campus to illustrate their “back to school” marketing campaign that year. Two competitor brands using the same imagery with identical purpose not only brought laughter to the audience, it also lead to certain confusion where people wouldn't differentiate at first sight one ad (and one company) from the other.

Other popular cases included ads from a software company and a male enhancement tablets product who used the same image and other similar strange coincidences between completely unrelated services and products using the same stock photos. That is the reason why you want rights managed on images you use and you can be sure that you, as the licensor, can use them exclusively for a certain time.

The Dell-Getaway case illustrates one of the worst down-sides of RF licenses. As the images you use are non-exclusive, nothing stops other companies from using them too. And this can have a negative effect not only on your ad or marketing strategy but on your brand as a whole. If a direct competitor or a smaller-runner company can use the same images you do, it can easily dilute your marketing campaign and your brand identity. Some big agencies also offer legal protection in case you run into any issues with the copyright holder.

Even if unrelated companies use the same photo in their ads, it can bring unwanted connections between your product or service and that of the other company, and at times such inexact connections can be embarrassing and misleading, like in the software-male enhancement tablets case.

Rights Managed licenses cut this problem at its roots. By offering the possibility to buy the exclusive rights to use an image for a certain period of time (and sometimes also to check the usage history for that image), this license allows you to plan and assure that nobody will overshadow your ad or campaign.

Which License to Choose Then?

As you saw above, price and budgets are only one of the factors to consider, and perhaps not even the number one priority when it comes to planning your marketing strategy using stock photos. Now, which license should you choose?

Small-to-medium businesses running ads, marketing campaigns and similar efforts on a local or small regional basis can certainly benefit from the royalty-free license. The cheap prices and flexible usage rights can help you find and use compelling stock images within your budget, and despite the overexposure of these royalty free licenses, the smaller geographical reach of local advertisement reduces the chances of finding embarrassing image usage coincidences. They also don't need to hire a photographer by themselfe or pay a photographer to optain the license to use the image.

Always Balance your Intended Use with the License Type

Although the logic we presented to you here is often times overlooked to prioritize monetary costs, you can now see that to weigh the pros and cons in each licensing model, as well as the scope and importance of the intended use, are a must when selecting stock photography.

Keep this in mind, and you'll surely be able to always find the best licensing model for your stock photo needs.

Amos Struck
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