Royalty-Free vs. Rights-Managed Licenses: How to Compare

Royalty-free licenses offer broad usage with a one-time fee, while rights-managed licenses grant specific use for a defined period.

By Matic Broz, editor-in-chief of Photutorial covering stock media, Adobe, and design. He founded Photutorial while finishing his PhD in computational biosciences.

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royalty-free vs rights-managed

Many content creators gravitate toward the simplicity of royalty-free licenses, but image licenses aren’t one-size-fits-all. You may get more specific, exclusive usage with a rights-managed license.

Comparing royalty-free and rights-managed licenses will help you choose the best image for your current needs and goals.

How a royalty-free license works

Royalty-free licenses offer broad usage rights for a one-time fee. The popular misconception about royalty-free is that it means “free of charge”. But it rather refers to the freedom to use the image without paying additional royalties after the initial license purchase. This makes it popular among content creators.

This license does not, however, guarantee exclusivity. The same image can be licensed by multiple users, which could lead to it being used in similar contexts by different brands.

How a rights-managed license works

A rights-managed license provides a license for a specific use for a defined period. This includes factors like the duration of use, the medium of publication, geographical location, and the size of the audience.

The key advantage of a rights-managed license is its exclusivity. If you secure a rights-managed license, you are often ensured that your competitor will not use the same image during your license period. However, this comes at a higher cost compared to royalty-free licenses.

Example: Royalty-Free vs. Rights-Managed

Royalty-free licenseRights-managed license
Image cost: $5Image cost: $300
Usage: Unlimited for any purposeUsage: 1-year usage for a specific marketing campaign
Exclusivity: None (the image can be used by others)Exclusivity: Guaranteed for the agreed usage and duration

» More: The pros and cons of royalty-free

Is royalty-free or rights-managed better?

The choice depends on your situation and goals.

The case for a royalty-free license

A royalty-free license may be right for you if you’re looking for cost-effective, broad usage rights without the need for exclusivity. With a one-time fee, you’ll always know what your payment will be. If you’re running a small business or a blog and need various images for different purposes, a royalty-free license might suit you best.

Overall, royalty-free licenses are simpler to understand than rights-managed licenses, which can make comparing image offerings easier.

The case for a rights-managed license

Rights-managed licenses often appeal to businesses and brands that require exclusivity for their campaigns. If you know your campaign needs a unique image that won’t appear elsewhere, a rights-managed license could be a good choice. You’ll get the benefit of exclusivity in the first years of your campaign. Then ideally, you can switch to a new image when the license expires.

Royalty-Free vs. Rights-Managed: Tips for choosing

To decide between a royalty-free or rights-managed license:

  • Consider the importance of exclusivity for your campaign. A rights-managed license might be worth it if you’re running a high-profile campaign and need the assurance that the image will not be used by your competitors. But a royalty-free license could work better if you’re running a blog or a small business and need cost-effective, non-exclusive images.
  • If you’re considering a rights-managed license, check the specifics of the license agreement. Understand the permitted usage and limitations. Would you be able to comply with the agreement? If not, shop for a royalty-free license.
  • Whether you choose a royalty-free or a rights-managed license, shop around and get at least three quotes to compare offers.


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