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What Does Royalty-Free Mean?

Matic BrozUpdated June 20, 2022

Royalty-free (RF) refers to a licensing agreement of an intellectual property in which no additional fees (royalties) are required to be paid for repeated use of the content after the initial royalty has been paid. A royalty-free license can be used worldwide and permanently without additional restrictions.

However, royalty-free licenses are sometimes restricted to a certain number of copies and to only one user. To get around that, you need to buy an extended license, but more on that later.

Are Royalty-free images free?

No, royalty-free images are not free. The “free” part of the “royalty-free” refers to the fact that you don’t need to pay each you use the licensed content. So, you can get royalty-free images by purchasing the license and then using them for free after that.

However, there are a few ways to get royalty-free images for free, including free trials, free collections, and weekly handouts.

1. Free trials

Many stock photo sites offer trial periods that allow you to get 10 or more stock photos for free. By using all of them, you can get over 100 free stock images. Some of the best free trials include:

  1. Adobe Stock – 10, 25, or 40 free images
  2. Shutterstock – 10 free images
  3. Canva – 1st month free, you can get unlimited downloads
  4. Bigstock – 35 free images or videos.
  5. Dreamstime – 15 watermarked images

2. Free collections and handouts

Some stock photo sites have a free collection of stock images that you may use at zero cost but require attribution. Others hand out free images if you create a free account or sign up for their newsletter. Some of the best examples include:

  1. Adobe Stock: a collection of 1 million images.
  2. Shutterstock: 1 free photo and 1 free vector every week when you create an account, plus free collections of stock photos.
  3. Depositphotos: a collection of 70K free images.
  4. Dreamstime: royalty-free and CC0 images.

Royalty-free license terms of use

Every stock photo agency has its own terms and conditions of use, and even different names for RF license (usually called “Standard License”), but some key features are universal across all stock photo agencies.

  • Not transferrable: When you purchase an RF license, it’s yours only. You may not share it, resell it, or even re-gift it. Only you may use it.
  • Not exclusive: Everyone who purchases an RF license for a stock image can use it. This means that several customers can use the same image. If you need exclusivity, there are exclusive stock photo agencies. For example, Getty Images can help you get exclusive content, but it will be very expensive.
  • Perpetuity: Once you purchase the RF license, you may use it for as long as you need to, with no time restrictions.
  • Worldwide use: RF licensed stock images are not geographically limited. You may use them anywhere in the world.
  • Multiple-use: RF license is not limited to a single-use. You may use it in as many projects as you want to and use multiple redistribution methods.
  • Resale: By default, a royalty-free license may be used for resale, such as for prints on mugs, T-shirts, and packaging. However, most stock photo sites require you to buy an Extended (or Enhanced) license, which usually costs $50-$100, to use the content for resale.
  • Ownership: By purchasing a royalty-free license, you don’t become the content’s rightful owner. The license grants you permission to use the content without infringing copyrights. If you want to own the content, you must get in touch with its creator and arrange the ownership transfer.

How much does a royalty-free image cost?

RF image prices differ based on the stock photo agency, subscription plans, size, and payment methods. The range of RF stock images is between $0.16/image and $125/image.

Shutterstock royalty-free plans
An example of a royalty-free stock photo sold with subscription plans at Shutterstock
Royalty-free license vs Enhanced license
Royalty-free license vs Enhanced license (Example: Shutterstock)

I encourage you to check my list of the cheapest stock photo sites, to find the best option for yourself. The majority of stock photo agencies sell RF images with subscription plans, a cheaper but less flexible option, and on-demand, a more expensive but 100% flexible.

Royalty-free examples:

  1. Dreamstime ($0.16/photo)
  2. Bigstock ($0.16/photo)
  3. Stock Photo Secrets ($0.17/photo)
  4. 123RF ($0.18/photo)
  5. Depositphotos ($0.21/photo)
  6. Shutterstock ($0.22/photo)
  7. iStock ($0.22/photo)
  8. Adobe Stock ($0.26/photo)
  9. StockUnlimited ($4.69/unlimited photos)
  10. Canva Pro ($9.99/unlimited photos)
  11. Photocase ($6.24/photo)
  12. Alamy ($6.96/photo)
  13. Pond5 ($25/photo)
  14. GettyImages.com ($125/photo)

The cost of RF images varies wildly, but so do their quality, intent, and license restrictions.

Allowed uses for royalty-free licenses

There are three different types of uses of RF licenses: Commercial, Editorial, and Extended.

Commercial RF license is the most widely used RF license, that can be used both for physical products and as a part of graphic designs, but it has a reproduction limit between 250,000 and 500,000, based on the agency that sells it. In some cases, it’s difficult to guess the number of impressions a product will have, on TV or film, for example, so a budget is used as a limit. Commercial RF licensed images can also be used to illustrate books and book covers, magazines, T-shirt, packaging, etc., but within the reproduction limit.

Editorial RF license is a lot more restrictive than a commercial. While you still pay the same as for the commercial RF license, its uses are restricted. Editorial RF images may only be used to illustrate a text, such as in news, magazines, or digital publications. Any sort of profitable use is forbidden. Additionally, several agencies put a limit of reproduction even on Editorial RF images at 250,000 up to 500,000.

Extended RF license has all the same uses as a Commercial or an Editorial RF license, but with an unlimited reproduction number. Extended RF license costs more but with an unlimited reproduction limit, there usually is no problem covering the initial license cost.

Restrictions to royalty-free licenses

A royalty-free license comes with a few additional restrictions, that are based around morality and scams, for the most part.

  • You may not resell or redistribute the image as it is. You may only use it as a part of a bigger design.
  • You may not share the image with others, store it on a shared drive, or gift it.
  • You may not use the image in adult content, such as sexually explicit scenes.
  • You may not use the images as a part of scam campaigns.
  • You may not manipulate images to appear as if models in it promote any sort of commercial or political campaign.
  • You may not use images as a part of a trademark or logo design.

Royalty-free images use

Royalty-free images can be used as a part of a bigger design, such as:

  • Online marketing campaigns
  • On websites and for web ads
  • For illustrations and covers of books, ebooks, CDs, DVDs, magazines
  • For prints on T-shirts, mugs, etc.
  • As a part of creative projects
  • Print banners and interior design

Keep in mind, that this information is just a summary of several licenses and may not be accurate for every RF license available. Always read an RF license before you use any stock media.

Frequently Asked Questions About Royalty-free Licensing

What does it mean if an image is royalty-free?

You only need to purchase royalty-free images once, which grants you a royalty-free license. This means you can then use royalty-free images for as long you want and as many times as you want without paying any further royalties.

What does royalty-free video mean?

Royalty-free videos are analogous to royalty-free images, because they are licensed under a similar RF license.

Is royalty-free the same as copyright-free?

Royalty-free means you can use material without owning the copyright as long as you paid for the royalty-free license. Copyright-free means that the copyright has expired and is now free to use.

Does royalty-free mean free for commercial use?

Royalty-free never means free. You may use royalty-free content for commercially, as long as you abide by the RF license. Usually, it’s a better idea to choose an Extended license for commercial use.

What is the difference between royalty and royalty-free?

Royalty-free refers to the content sold under a royalty-free license. Upon a one-time purchase of royalty-free content, it can be used multiple times, without any further payment. The purchase fee of royalty-free content is called a royalty.

What is a royalty-free license?

Royalty-free license is the most basic license used by stock photo agencies to sell stock images, videos, and illustrations. RF license grants a life-time permission to use purchased images, videos, or illustrations, but with certain restrictions. While it grants you the right to use the image, you do not receive its ownership.

Royalty-free license Summary

In conclusion, the RF license is the most basic and inexpensive premium stock license available.

Consequently, its uses are very limited and are seldom appropriate for bigger commercial campaigns. When you known you’ll have a larger audience (500,000+), you should always purchase an Extended RF license.

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About the author

Matic Broz profile image

Matic Broz is a photographer, graphic designer, and stock photographer. For over ten years he's been helping photographers improve their photos and graphic designers find the best images for their designs. His work has been featured by Lifewire and PetaPixel. In his free time, he enjoys photography, hiking, and petting random dogs. Read more

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