Royalty Free Photos – what does that mean?

There is a lot of misconception as to what Royalty Free means.  Many people seem to get hung up on the ‘free’ part and assume that they don’t cost anything.  This is not the case.

Royalty Free refers the type contract being used to license an image.  It is called royalty free because once the licensee (the one using the image) agrees to the contract they are ‘free’ to use the image (almost) however they want.  By free, I am not referring to money, I am referring to a very liberal contract.   Traditionally images were licensed with a Rights Managed contract.  With this type of contract the image buyer (licensee) had to specify when, where, and how the image would be used and would pay accordingly.  When compared to rights managed licensing, the royalty free contract is very ‘free’ or ‘flexible’ for the image buyer (user).

Even though royalty free images have a very liberal contract,  they still have restrictions.  When you license an image, you are agreeing to a contract.  To avoid unnecessary legal disputes, make sure you have read the contract and know what you can and cannot do with the image.  Shutterstock‘s list of what you cannot do with an image is as follows.

Use an Image other than as specified in PART I.
Except as expressly provided in Part I hereof, directly or indirectly copy or reproduce any Image (in whole or in part) more than two hundred fifty thousand (250,000) times. Nor may you produce or otherwise create for resale or distribution, printed reproductions of any Image on canvas, paper, plastic or any other medium unless expressly permitted by this agreement.
Use or display any Image on websites or in connection with any service designed to sell or induce sales of “print on demand” products using or incorporating Image(s), including, by way of example only, postcards, mugs, t-shirts, posters, giclee prints, wallpaper, artwork and other items.
Use an Image together with pornographic, defamatory, or otherwise unlawful or immoral content or in such a manner that it infringes upon any third party’s trademark or intellectual property.
Use an Image in a way that places any person depicted in the Image in a bad light or in a way that they may find offensive – this includes, but is not limited to the use of Images: a) in pornography, “adult videos” or the like; b) in ads for tobacco products; c) in ads or promotional materials for adult entertainment clubs or similar venues, or for escort, dating or similar services; d) in connection with political endorsements; e) in advertisements or promotional materials for pharmaceutical or healthcare, herbal or medical products, including, but not limited to dietary supplements, digestive aids, herbal supplements, personal hygiene or birth control products; and f) uses that are defamatory, or contain otherwise unlawful, offensive or immoral content. You may not use an Image containing the likeness of a person if such use implies that the model engages in any immoral or illegal activity or suffers from a physical or mental infirmity, ailment or condition.
Resell, redistribute or transfer any Image except as specifically provided herein. Displaying any Image in any digital format or for any digital use at a resolution greater than 800 x 600 pixels, except in preliminary design work, will be deemed to be an attempt to redistribute the Image and could result in the termination of your rights under this agreement.
Share an Image by providing access to such Image on shared disk drives, computer networks, intranets of any nature or otherwise.
Use Shutterstock Images in a manner that competes with Shutterstock’s business. This includes, by way of illustration only and not by way of limitation, displaying Images in any format (including thumbnails) for download on a website, offering Shutterstock Images for sale, or including Shutterstock Images in templates of any nature, including templates for websites, social networking websites (e.g.,, Facebook, etc.) documents, projects or otherwise for distribution and/or sale to third parties.
You may not create a digital or print greeting card line based on Shutterstock Images – or use our Images as the basis for any individual or collection of physical or digital objects which you then offer for sale. However, you may use up to ten (10) Images per paid monthly subscription for manufacturing or producing physical items for promotional use only, including paper greeting cards, magnets, etc., provided that you do not produce more than 1,000 copies of any single item that bears one or more Images and further provided that such items combine text with any Images. Promotional uses must comply, in all respects, with the restrictions set forth in these TOS. You may not sell or distribute items (e.g., mousepads, calendars, mugs, t-shirts, bookmarks, etc.) that incorporate Images.  If you wish to use an Image or Images in connection with the production of any items prohibited by this Standard License, you may purchase an Enhanced License, which provides a broader grant of rights. Click here to view the Enhanced License
Use an Image marked “Editorial Use Only” for commercial purposes. If an Image is marked, “Editorial Use Only”, additional permissions may be required for commercial use. Shutterstock does not provide such permissions.
Use any Image (in whole or in part) as a trademark, service mark, logo, or other indication of origin, or as part thereof , or to otherwise endorse or imply the endorsement of any goods and/or services.
Use or display an Image in such a manner that gives the impression that the Image was created by you or a person other than the copyright holder of that Image
Represent yourself as an agent, employee, designee, or affiliate of Shutterstock for any purpose, including but not limited to the negotiation of any business, distribution, partnership, or development agreement.
Stockpile, download, or otherwise store Images not used within six (6) months of the expiration of the subscription under which you downloaded the Image. If you fail to use an Image within such six (6) month period, you will lose all rights to use that Image.
Use automated programs, applets, bots or the like to access the website or any content thereon for any purpose, including, by way of example only, downloading Images, indexing or caching the content on the website.

Other Useful Resources

[Royalty Free Discussion on Microstockgroup]

Definition of Royalty Free – Wikipedia

Rights managed VS. Royalty Free – an article on

What is the meaning of royalty free? – an article on

Top 5 License Faux Pas –

About The Author:

Tyler Olson works as a microstock photographer who also runs the MicrostockGroup forum and blog. Being so closely involved in the microstock community as a submitter, forum moderator and blogger, Tyler is able to keep updated in the constantly changing microstock marketplace.
Posted on November 2nd, 2009 in Editorial | tags:
  • Tyler, thanks for the post, the definition of RF is clear now. I’m writing an ebook and will make sure to cite you as a resource that helped with defining the topic. thx!

  • pslv seoa6

    My Stock Photos
    Finding high-quality, free to use images is a major battle every blog writer fights. Great imagery is a crucial piece of a great blog article. The next entry on our list of the best blogging tools – My Stock Photos – helps you do just that – find amazing, high-quality stock images. Free of charge.
    You really can’t beat free. Just don’t go overboard on adding tons of random pictures to your posts now that you have access to them. Make sure they’re all relevant and add value.