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Episode #120: Stock Photo Licensing

Many graphic designers may unknowingly violate stock photo licensing terms when they buy a stock image or when they send one to a client. Here are some things to be aware of when choosing free and paid stock images for your graphic design projects.


In this episode of Design Domination, I am getting into stock photo licensing.

I want graphic designers to be aware of licensing terms with stock photos. I know a lot of designers don’t pay that much attention to them or don’t understand them.

After all, the terms are not always clear and are written in legalese.

I myself have had to inquire with stock photo companies about their licensing because I’ve found some of the terms to not be very clear.

I also know that many designers share stock photos (and also fonts) with their clients, not necessarily thinking if what they are doing goes against the licensing they agreed to.

I’ve seen that some designers have gotten letters from alleged stock photo companies claiming misuse of a photo or not having a license to use it. Sometimes these are spam, but sometimes they are legit.

I once had a lawyer client get one of these letters from a stock image company who asked him to pay fees for an image he seemingly wasn’t licensed to use on his website.

His previous web designer had purchased the license, and the lawyer was able to resolve the issue without payment. But that’s not always the case, and I just want you to be aware of some things to look for when choosing stock images.

You always want to check the rights and the license to use them, so you don’t open up yourself or your clients to potential legal problems.

Stock Photo Licensing

Free Images

Let’s talk about free images. There are tons of free images out there, but it doesn’t mean you can use them. Many of them come with strings attached.

Most designers know this, but most of the images you find via a Google images search are copyrighted, so you cannot just use them in your projects.

Free in terms of cost and free in terms of use are not the same thing.

There are stock companies such as Freepik that allow you to use images free of charge but that requires attribution to the photographer, designer or artist.

There are others who allow you to use their images free of charge but not for commercial use.

Paid Stock Images

But just because you buy an image doesn’t mean you can use it however you like.

Standard vs extended licenses

Some stock photo companies offer different types of licensing. They might offer a standard license for one price and an extended license for a higher price.

The differences between the licenses might be:

  • the number of print copies or impressions on a website (usually at a break point of 500,000),
  • how you are allowed to use the image, what you are allowed to use it on, like if you’re planning to resell the item on a product or as part of a template; and
  • how long you can use the image (I’ve seen some that say a period of five years, for example).

But also, when it comes to print copies or impressions or a time limit, who’s going to track that? Whoever licenses the image is responsible. Will that be you or your client? If you license the image, are you going to be held responsible by the stock photo company if your client exceeds that?

Editorial use

You may also come across images that are designated for editorial use only. These cannot be used in commercial projects, but only for purposes of news reporting or in a magazine or newsletter, for example.

They usually cost a lot more too.

When you’re searching, a lot of stock image companies allow you to filter out images that are for editorial use only. You don’t want to find the perfect image, see that it’s for editorial use only and then you can’t use it for how you need to. (Trust me! I’ve run into this so many times.) If you don’t notice this until your design is approved, then you will need to find another image—and that can change your whole design.

Custom stock photo licenses

Some stock image companies may offer a custom license that allows you to use the image as the main element in a logo design. Otherwise, you can’t usually do that.

Subscriptions for stock photos

If you purchase a subscription to a stock photo company, you may only be allowed to use the images as long as your subscription is in force. So if you cancel, you may not be allowed to use the images if you end your subscription. That’s definitely something you have to look at.

Client use

Regardless of which option you choose or which license, when you purchase a stock image for a client project, you usually cannot share the image with them.

Many stock photo companies will allow you to use it in their project but not send the client the individual image file.

Some will allow you to buy on behalf of your client and name them as the licensee, but most of them don’t.

You always want to know what you’re getting into, what’s in that license and what you’re allowed to do with the images.

Stock Image Sources

If you’re looking for stock images that you can legally use, I’ve got a Stock Image Directory of hundreds of image sources.

While I’m on the topic of images, if you want to find out how to add Alt-text to your images, get my Alt-text Made Easy guide.

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