Legalities & Licenses: Free vs. Paid Stock Photo Sites

Whether you’re an up and coming social media influencer or a globally recognized design firm, it is imperative that you know how to compete in today’s audio-visual world … a world in which every day brings a fresh new tsunami of content, and staying afloat means keeping the content coming. Day in, and day out.

Free stock photos are one of the best ways to keep a small marketing campaign on top of the wave, so to speak, and paid stock photo sites are an absolute must for larger operations and creative freelance professionals. There is no secret here:

Stock photos are simply a great way to elevate your brand, vision, or voice … no matter what you’re trying to accomplish.

But there are some legal questions behind stock photos that have kept some people from truly appreciating their value.

Some of the following questions have simple answers, and some require a bit more explanation. In this article, we’re going to answer some of the most common questions about the “legal stuff” regarding stock photo sites. After that, we’ll review the basic differences between free stock photo sites and paid stock photo collections, and share a few tips on getting the most out of your free stock photos.

Are Free Stock Photo Sites Actually Free?

Yes! The free stock photos available online are free to download and use, oftentimes without any need to sign up for an account. In fact, most of them make it easy to download images with nothing more than a few clicks of the mouse.

But while these photos have no charge to download, they are still under certain licensing restrictions that limit the ways in which they can be used. Because the licensing details vary from site to site, it is very important for the user to educate themselves as to what kind of things they can and cannot use the stock image for.

That’s what this article is for … pulling the curtain open on the not-so-mysterious mysteries of stock photo licensing, both for free stock photo sites and paid stock photo subscriptions. By the end, you will have a firmer grasp on the legalities of stock photo licensing, opening up a world of visual opportunity to you and your artistic endeavors.

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Is It True That Free Stock Photos Aren’t as Good as Paid (Royalty-Free) Stock Photos?

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The difference between free stock photos and paid stock photos is not usually in the quality of the images themselves, but rather the legal suitability for using them for a commercial purpose. So overall no, we would not agree that free stock photos “aren’t as good”, but for certain uses paid images are worth their cost –more on this in a bit.

Another differentiating factor is in the library size. While the smallest and newest free stock photo collections can be as small as a few hundred photos, the “big boys” of stock photography have hundreds of thousands of pieces of stock content.

However, most free stock photo sites build their libraries from larger, premium collections, oftentimes pairing with an established royalty-free content site in exchange for advertising and linking. For this reason, free stock photo sites almost always feature content that is just as good as you would find on the paid sites.

Being able to find an effective stock photo is one thing, but being able to find one that no one else is using, well, that’s another thing altogether.

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Is it Worth It to Pay for Stock Images, Photos, or Videos?

No one is going to argue that in most cases, free is absolutely better than not free. However, there are a number of instances when it is better to sign up for a paid stock photo site.

The budget is perhaps the largest consideration when deciding whether or not to pay for stock media content. Small businesses and media operations might not be able to afford royalty-free content, and in fact, they might have no marketing budget at all. This is the real value of free stock photo sites; they allow everyone an opportunity to get their brand, idea, or voice out into the world with an actual fighting chance of being seen and appreciated.

But it is worth knowing that paid stock photos are a lot more affordable than you'd think. There are a plethora of stock photo sites selling royalty-free stock images at dirty cheap prices with a minimum investment, and they are mostly volume-tied deals where the more you're willing to buy, the less you pay. Today, a royalty-free photo that is perfectly safe to use commercially can cost you anything between $1 and $20, but you can get these high-quality photographs for less than a dollar each if you buy more than a handful.

Premium stock photo libraries on the other hand are usually far more expansive than their no-charge counterparts, as they offer high-end photography –exclusive or specialized content, from renowned photographers–, which is why many established marketing firms and freelance designers choose to maintain paid subscriptions with multiple, affordable stock photo sites. These are the artistic professionals who need the exact image they are looking for. After all, marketing is a game of precision and exactitude.

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The Basics: Free Stock Photo Licensing

Free stock photos are licensed in a number of different ways. Some sites choose to provide all of their images under a single license, while others might allow the image contributor to choose what kind of license they want to use for each individual image. This is why it is important to take the time to review the licensing terms not only for the site you’re using but also for the image that you are interested in using.

While this is especially true of images that are being used commercially, such as in a business marketing or social media campaign, there are sometimes restrictions for personal use as well.

Creative Commons is one of the most frequently used licensing mechanisms for creators and designers alike … allowing artists around the world to share their work with like-minded people without charging a dime for it. The types of images available under creative commons are oftentimes provided by the creator in an effort to either build their portfolio or increase their exposure, so CC licenses usually require the user to provide credit to the image creator.

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While CC stock photos are free to use for both personal and commercial purposes, the original copyright remains with the creator, which means that it is still possible to infringe copyright with CC-licensed free stock photos.

Here are some of the most common forms of the CC license, which are often time mixed in different combinations based on how the image creator wants their work used in the world:

Attribution (BY) – All Creative Commons licenses requires that anyone who uses the image must provide credit to the image creator (unless permission is granted to use it without)
ShareAlike (SA) – The stock photo in question can be distributed, modified, or displayed by anyone as long as the original licensing terms are followed
NonCommercial (NC) – Some CC licenses feature a non-commercial condition that prevents it from being used for commercial or business purposes.
NoDerivatives (ND) – The original stock photo can be used, but not modified without specific permission

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The Basics: Paid Stock Photo Licensing

Paid stock photos are the result of dedicated artists, photographers, and contributors, which is apparent in the quality and overall effectiveness of the images.

Paid stock photo licenses exist to give these creative professionals a means to earn from their work as well as to protect them from losing income on breached copyright or stolen images, which unfortunately is more common than people think. And agencies selling paid stock images are handling the critical background work that ensures these photos are legally valid to use under agreed the license terms.

Paid stock photos can fall under all sorts of licenses, many of them completely custom to the provider. While it is imperative to read up on the licensing terms for yourself, there are a few basic things we can share about paid stock photo licensing that might be helpful:

Royalty-Free stock photos (oftentimes referred to as RF) is a basic paid stock photo licensing option that allows the purchaser to use the image over and over again, in certain ways, without any additional cost. In other words, once you par for the photo, you can use it as much as you want as long as you are following the license terms. It is also non-exclusive, meaning the same image can be licensed for many clients at the same time and over time, allowing the author to earn multiple times from the same piece of work. As a result, the price points for RF images tend to be nicely low.

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With royalty-free image licensing, the purchaser has the right to use the image, but that does not mean that they are purchasing the actual copyright of the image. The copyright stays with the image creator, which is why it is very important to read the license agreement and know the rules.

Here are some of the most common conditions of a basic royalty-free stock image licensing agreement:

Multiple Use – the image can be used in different forms of media, such as digital, print, or other.
Perpetual Use – the image can be used at any time without any kind of time limit
Worldwide Use – the image can be used in any part of the world
Non-Exclusive Use – the image is for sale to other people who can also use it as much as they want according to the license agreement
Non-Transferrable Use – the image license belongs only to the person or organization who purchased it, it cannot be gifted, sold, or traded

Note: The use terms described above are some of the most commonly seen options seen in an RF license, but individual agreements might have certain restrictions or specifications.

Rights-Managed Image Licenses are a bit more restricted on use terms, as you can’t just use them over and over again however you want.

Rights-Managed (RM) licenses often restrict things like:

• How many times the image can be used
• The size, placement, and geographical display details
• How long the image can be used for
• The number of people that are expected to see the image

RM image licenses are all about pay-to-play, so the more you want to use an image, the more money you’re going to have to shell out.

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Even if you receive a takedown notice for possible copyright infringement, it is unlikely that you will face any real legal consequences as long as you comply with the notice as soon as possible. Of course, this is not the case for big commercial companies who are making a lot of money off of their content.

Still, it is important for designers and marketing firms to understand the potential fallout of a copyright infringement case. On the low end, it case cost as little as $750 bucks, but more egregious cases can earn a penalty of up to $150,000.

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It doesn’t matter if you’re browsing the newest free stock photo sites or upgrading to a paid stock image subscription … there are always going to be limitations on how you can use the image.

The best way to stay protected against accidental copyright infringement is to take the time to review the license terms of both the site you are using and the image that you want to download. Every stock photo site has a “Terms” or “User Agreement” page that lays it all out in detail. Some of these pages can get a bit dense … but once you have it figured out you will be able to use the images in confidence.

In addition to familiarizing yourself with the licensing terms, there are a number of other things that can be done to protect yourself from copyright infringement with stock photos:

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1. Read the Licensing Terms – We don’t care if we sound like a broken record; this step is important

2. Use Trusted Stock Photo Sites – For free and paid stock photo sites alike, be sure to use reputable sand reviewed sites. The more legit the site is, the better chance that they have all their licensing terms in order

3. Do Your Homework with Legal Aspects – Especially if you're going to use the image in a commercial project (like for marketing or advertising), you need to make sure not only that you're following the license terms, but also that the license is valid, i.e that the copyright owner has really authorized the license, that all the recognizable people depicted have signed a model release document authorizing the use of their likeness, etc. If you use paid Royalty-free images this is all done for you by the agency, but in the case of a free stock photo site, this is more likely than not left for you to do.

4. Play Safe by Avoiding Legal Risk – If you must use free photos and don't want all the hassle of the background check, you can still be on the safe side of legal by avoiding the most common points of conflict:

  • Don't use photos of recognizable people: Avoid showing full faces and/or recognizable physical features, or simply avoid photos that include people altogether.
  • Don't use photos with visible logos or trademarks: This includes items with popularly known designs that make them recognizable, such as iPhones, Coca-Cola bottles, the Burberry print, etc.

5. Don’t Forget Attribution – All Creative Commons (CC) licenses require attribution unless permission is specifically granted from the image creator

6. Pay Attention to Takedown Notices – If you are contacted by a photographer or content company informing you that you are in violation of the license agreement, the best thing to do is take the image down immediately. In most cases, it won’t go farther than that, and you can either acquire the correct license for your needs or look for a new image altogether

7. Don’t Redistribute Stock Photos – One thing that is common to almost every stock photo license out there is a restriction on redistribution. To put it simply: you can’t download a bunch of free stock photos and use them to make your own stock content site.

8. Use High-Quality Stock Photographs – This tip is more aesthetically motivated, but be sure to use only dynamic, interesting stock photos that are relevant to your content goals. People see a lot of content these days, and great stock images are required to rise above the noise.

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