April 14, 2022

A Guide to Image Licensing

Photo by Panos Sakalakis

Rights-managed and royalty-free licenses, image use rights, licensing agreements, licensing fees, licensed stock images…There’s so much to know about image licensing, and so much you must know if you are a photographer looking for publicity and to earn a profit from your work (and if you are the party planning to buy the license, too). Here’s our guide to image licensing, giving you the answers to the most common questions on the topic in hope of helping you avoid image theft and copyright infringement issues.

What is an image license?

Photographers (rights holders) give an image license to their clients to outline how the given work can be used. From specifying time duration to deciding on platform usage, the license grants different rights to the party that wishes to use the image.

It’s important to note that when someone is acquiring a license to use an image, it does not mean that they will be the new copyright holders as well. The copyright owner will still be the image creator until they decide to pass that under the conditions they choose.

What are the typical image licenses?

There are a couple of well-known image license categories photographers should know about if they’re thinking about earning money with their art (and/or publicity).

Rights-managed license

As the name suggests, a rights-managed license comes with more restrictions and specifically describes how the licensee can use the image, whether they have to stick to a time duration, region, a platform of choice, or a certain format and edits. If someone would like to keep using an image after the set time duration is up, they need to come to a new agreement with the image owner to renew the license.

If you licensed a photograph with a royalty-free license, later you cannot license it again with a rights-managed license, as you cannot make sure how the previous buyer would use the image and how that would conflict with the new buyer during their licensing period.

Royalty-free license

In the case of a royalty-free image license, the creator/rights holder allows the future image user to use the image without any royalty payment needed. The CC0 (Creative Commons Zero) license (more about this below) is the best example of this.

In certain situations, for a royalty-free image, the licensee pays a one-time flat fee to acquire the rights, but there are no recurring royalties needed to pay later as the image user keeps utilizing the image.

This license usually provides unlimited use with few or no limitations (very rare) and is a popular license type in stock photography, as well.

Under a royalty-free license, the image can be practically used forever, in any format, and worldwide. This is why you might encounter the same image of a famous person over and over again on a news site as they tend to purchase royalty-free images to save budget and access unlimited use at the same time.

Creative Commons licenses

There are several Creative Commons (CC) licenses that creatives can choose from within the “all rights reserved” notion presented by copyright law. The licenses range from CC0 (Creative Commons Zero) which releases the given work into the public domain all the way to commercial licenses that allow licensees to build upon the creator’s work for commercial purposes. The different CC licenses come with different attribution specifications as well to which every image user should pay attention.

Copyright-free, public domain, fair use

We can talk about a copyright-free work if the creator released it without copyright intentionally and thus into the public domain. These are images you may find on Unsplash, for instance. Read about the other cases of public domain here. Another special scenario is fair use where the law allows work to be shared without any license if it is in the public interest — however, this is the most commonly misunderstood term in the subjects of photography and copyright. Determining if a subject falls under this category is fairly complex, very difficult to prove and use correctly; and the rules may vary country by country.

While royalty-free and rights-managed licenses are related more to the practice of stock photography agencies and sites, Creative Commons licenses can be used by literally anyone who wishes to put their work available online for publicity — and wants to think (as they should) about how that may be used by others.

Photo by Edgar Moran

What are commercial licenses for images?

An image licensed for commercial use allows the image to be used for any commercial activity where the person or company licensing the image uses it connected to a business or similar.

The specific purposes vary: the image can appear on a website, can be used on a business social media, printed on a mug, on a T-shirt, in an online advertisement, or on a billboard. Naturally, the potential reach of these formats can be very different, and that influences the price someone has to pay for that license. This is one of those important details to specify in a licensing agreement.

If the license is non-commercial, it means there is no connection to business or commercial activities, no promoting or selling a product or service, or growing a business or following. Non-commercial usually only refers to personal/private use for an individual.Other images are licensed for editorial and non-commercial use when news sites or media companies usually license or acquire the rights to pictures directly from photographers.

It’s important to know that images licensed for editorial use (usually) cannot be used for commercial purposes.

The reason is that pictures taken for editorial use, showcase newsworthy events — and if you’re publishing the photo as part of news coverage, no model release form is needed from the people appearing in that image (varies in some regions).

However, if you’re licensing a photograph for commercial purposes where someone’s face is recognizable, you must have the permission of the person through a release form.

Consequently, a picture intended for editorial use may show people in a recognizable way and without the photographer having them sign a release form, the image cannot be licensed with a commercial license later.

What are the common types of usage rights?

Following the above point, media outlets tend to buy/acquire image licenses that provide the exclusive rights to use that image. If they have exclusivity, no one else can use that picture.

A non-exclusive right is exactly the opposite — this is what we usually see with stock photography’s royalty-free and rights-managed licenses.

Exclusive rights also come up when a photographer shoots along a specific brief on a client’s order, so the client will be the only party allowed to use the final visual outcomes. As a result, photographers usually sell licenses with non-exclusive rights for images with more general themes, such as landscapes or still life, or pictures they shot out of their own interest.

Another very common usage restriction is the geographic region, for instance: the USA, North America, or worldwide. It’s a key fundamental to pricing and licensing images.

How much does an image license cost?

The photographer is free to set whatever price they feel appropriate for the image. This may include factors such as the cost of production (equipment, location, travel, post-production), the work invested in, and any expenses associated with the photoshoot.Many factors weigh in when you’re about to determine how much your image license should cost. There’s exclusivity, as mentioned above, and the fact if the picture will be used commercially or not.

You have to consider how much you’d like to earn with it and if a one-time flat fee (royalty-fee license) would suit your needs or if you want to detail the bits of your license (rights-managed), assuring another type of life for your work out there. If you’re about to sign a licensing agreement directly with your client, and not making your work available for purchase and download on a stock photo site, you yourself have to consider the circumstances of your buyer as well: how long and where are they going to use the image and how big of an audience will it potentially reach?

TIP: Use Pixsy to monitor image use past the expiry date of your license! You can offer to resell or renew the license.

Make sure to read our guide where we go into more detail about everything to consider when determining your licensing fee.

legal document
Photo by Kelly Sikkema

How to license an image?

You can license an image if you are the copyright owner (or holder) and thus are allowed to give usage rights to another party. The copyright owner (/holder) is usually the person who created the image but as a sublicensee, it can also be a middle party, a stock photography agency, for instance, who can practice such rights on behalf of the photographer, or a party that has acquired the rights to the image from the creator/owner.

To license an image, you must decide on the license type along with the usage rights you’d like to provide to another party, and you or your legal help must write a licensing agreement to put down every detail in writing and properly so.

What does a licensing agreement look like?

A licensing agreement is very similar to any other legal agreement.

It should specify the parties making the agreement and the subject matter: your photograph that is going to be used in certain circumstances. This is where photographers (and both parties, actually) have to pay attention: the circumstances.

The agreement should cover all the fine details of planned image use from geographical locations to timeframes, from exclusivity questions to image crediting questions.

You can draw up your own image licensing agreements but we’d advise you to have it reviewed by a lawyer to smooth out any possible gaps or misunderstandings in the text. To have you started, here’s a good checklist to put together your own licensing agreement.

TIP: Some photography industry associations will have legal kits you can use, including template agreements (specific to your country, industry, and law).

Which image license is best?

This is a question photographers must answer on their own and we hope that this article gives all the information needed to make such a decision.

TIP: At Pixsy, we recommend to all clients that they set their images to “All Rights Reserved” and only issue licenses or permissions after careful consideration or in exchange for a license fee.

You must figure out if you should use a Creative Commons license, or if the path of stock photography suits your profession. Knowing your work’s subject, we’re sure you can decide if you want to grant editorial or commercial use for it. As for the rest, thinking about whether to sell something to a party exclusively, drafting a licensing agreement, or figuring licensing fees — part of it will come with experience, gathering more and more knowledge of clients and the market, and part of it through legal assistance given to you.

It’s always worth it to invest the time, energy, and money to learn about image licensing and get the professional help you need. It’s going to give you the reassurance that your work is as safe as it can get online — and if you’d still encounter unauthorized use of your images, make sure to give Pixsy a go at resolving any issues.

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