The Beginner’s Guide to Using Stock Images Without Getting Sued

by | May 31, 2018 | Business Law | 0 comments

You know content is king, and you know you can get images readily online. You probably don’t know how many ways this can lead to an unfriendly letter from a lawyer.

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Compliance makes sure that your hard-earned money stays in your pocket, or better yet reinvested, not squandered in an avoidable legal dispute. As companies spend more and more time creating content-marketing strategies to reach their customers, sourcing the assets they use becomes more and more important.

It’s easy to think that stock assets would be the way to go over producing your own content, especially considering how little stock sites charge for their use. The reality is, it’s actually not as cheap as you’d think if you’re remaining compliant and using the images they’re intended. Let me be clear: you’re not to blame, it’s simply that licensing stock assets is a lot more complicated than you probably realize.

For example, if you’re a small business with one employee who creates all of your advertising documents, then a standard royalty-free license is definitely fitting for your business model. In this scenario, your employee can head over to a stock site, license the image on their computer and create the marketing document you need. As long as you stay within the maximum allotted number of people who’ll be viewing the asset and also that you only use the asset once, then you’re in compliance.

However, let’s assume you have another employee work on the same file you bought with a standard license — then you’re immediately out of compliance. A standard licensing agreement allows for a single user to access and use the file that you license.

This is why it’s critical that you’re aware of where you’re licensing your files and what their licenses allow. Assuming that you’re entering a licensing agreement with a photographer, videographer, graphic designer or simply buying your assets off of a stock photography website, here are some considerations to have prior to approving the purchase.

Royalty-Free vs. Rights-Managed

Royalty-Free and Rights-Managed licenses are the two most commonly used models for licensing assets and price isn’t the only factor to consider when either choosing one or the other. In fact, you should truly evaluate your needs before taking the plunge into either direction.


The benefits of choosing a Royalty-Free license is that it allows the licensee (you) unlimited and multiple uses of an asset, with restrictions depending on the licensing agreement you pay for. This is assuming that you’re being compliant with the number of users accessing the file to create the project. If your creative team is larger than one person, you’ll need to buy the right licensing agreement.

At the very basic level, most licenses allow you to pay a one-time license for perpetual use of the assets you’re licensing, be it a photo, video or a template. This is a non-exclusive contract. The creator of the asset is allowed to sell that asset multiple times and through multiple agencies, as they choose.


The licensee pays a fee in order to use the asset, and the fee is based on usage. For instance, an image can be used as a print ad, billboard or printed on a tee shirt, but the licensee agrees to pay for the intended use. In this scenario, the licensee also has the ability to pay for exclusive rights for the asset so that no one else has access to those files.

Why stock isn’t always the cheaper option.

It’s important to look at content creation like any other product. Whether it be photo, video or a graphic; marketing template, content creators are selling a product. With every asset produced, there’s still a combination of time, equipment, production and uniqueness that goes into every single file.

Even if you choose to avoid hiring a photographer yourself and choose to use a stock asset over creating your own, there’s still a cost of producing the content and the photographer wants to see a return on their investment.

For example, a simple Birdseye view of the ocean can cost from hundreds to thousands of dollars to create. Between the cost of hiring a helicopter or buying a drone, along with other expenses, labor and the experience of the photographer, that single image of the ocean costs thousands of dollars to produce.

On that note, what if you’re licensing a photo of a person? Then there’s still the cost of hiring the subject and location for the shoot. These are all costs that you’re avoiding by licensing the image royalty free. However, this is why the license is non-exclusive. The photographer is able to disperse the cost of creating the file over several licensees in order to recover their investment. This is why content creators are extremely protective of their rights.

Factors that contribute to pricing.

Pricing for the asset you choose will vary depending on the quality of the asset, the type of asset you’re licensing and where that license will be used. Pricing can also vary wildly depending on where you’re sourcing your asset from. For example, the pricing on Shutterstock, Adobe Stock, and Getty Images can vary from site to site, but you’ll want to be sure that the licensing agreements align with your business objectives.

This should go without saying, but you get what you pay for. If you want exclusivity, then you’ll need to pay for exclusivity. If you want to print the asset on a T-Shirt, then you’ll pay accordingly. The same holds true, whether it’s photography, videography, music or graphics. Here are some factors that contribute to pricing assets:

End Products: How many times will you be using the asset? E.g. You can license a music track and use it in your TV ad, but you can’t use the same song on your website if you haven’t purchased a license with more than one use.

Print Runs: How many copies of the asset will be distributed? Most basic licenses cover you up to 500,000 total copies of a downloaded or physical copy. This also covers up to 500,000 people who can view the final product.

Merchandise Use: Will your product be sold on T-shirt, Mug or any other type of product? Yes? Then, you’ll probably need an extended license to do so.

Redistribution: You are not allowed to resell, redistribute the product without authorization. If you want to do so, you’ll need an extended license or you’ll need to pay a premium depending on where you choose to license your assets.

Indemnification: How much of your losses will the stock site cover if a third party sues you? Most stock websites charge a premium for indemnification. This is imperative in case either the creator of the asset or the people in the asset (say a photo or video) decided to sue you because they never authorized the use of the image. (Most stock agencies request if the creator has a model release, only a handful require to show proof).

Exclusive vs. Non-Exclusive: If you’re interested in licensing an image exclusively so that you’re the only licensee able to use the image, expect to pay a premium. If you’re not willing to pay for exclusivity, then expect that the creator will license the image to others.

Uniqueness: If it’s unique, expect to pay more. Scenic images and video of New York City are a dime a dozen. Scenic shots of wild Leopard Seal charging at the camera in the middle of Antarctica, not so much. If it’s unique, the creator is going to charge more.

Beyond that, we have license terms. You pay more for more freedoms. It’s just that simple.

Selecting the right license for you.

In order to make it easier for the consumer market, stock agencies have divided their licensing into separate categories — Standard and Extended. Which license you choose is determinant on what you need the assets for.

Every stock agency will have different terms with regards to personal use vs. commercial use that describe the number of projects you’re able to use the assets in, the number of people the assets can be used to reach, etc. Usually speaking, every image in their catalog is on a level playing field in terms of uniqueness (every image cost the same), unless they offer a premium catalog and most large stock agencies will also provide you with indemnification coverage at a premium.

Below, you’ll find some common uses for licenses depending on what you’re looking to create:

Standard License

  • Presentations
  • Ebooks
  • Promotional Cards and Mailers
  • Web Page Designs
  • Set Design (Audience Must be Less than Allotted Amount)
  • Film and Video (Audience Must be Less than Allotted Amount)
  • Trade Show Signage

Extended License

  • Greeting Cards
  • Calendars That Will Be Sold.
  • Apps
  • Advertisements
  • Posters
  • Art Prints
  • Computer Screen Savors
  • Commercials

The license types you choose will be a reflection of the miscellaneous requests/coverages that you make. Often times, sites will charge you minimally to license an image and then will tack on additional fees to the assets for additional grants. It’s not unheard of to see an image go from twenty dollars to upwards of several hundred.

Professional, Team and Enterprise Packages

In the event, you’re going to regularly be buying and licensing stock images to consider investing in a professional, team or enterprise package — they may provide you with the valuable coverage that you’re looking for. For example, Adobe Stock and Getty images both offer flexible plans that include unlimited print runs, users, sharing and indemnification for their enterprise contracts.

They both also allow users to collaborate in their own ways, should your company need access to collaborative tools to produce content.

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