What is a royalty-free license?

A royalty-free license is a permit to use copyrighted material without paying for each use, copy, or time 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 definition

Royalty-free refers to the legal permission to use copyrighted material without needing to pay royalties or licensing fees for each use. With a royalty-free license, users make a single upfront payment to use copyrighted works according to agreed-upon terms rather than making continuous payments each time the work is used.

Royalty-free is not the same as copyright-free or public domain material, where works are unrestricted by copyright laws. Royalty-free licensed content still belongs to the creator and has usage terms.

Common features of royalty-free licenses include:

  • One-time fee for perpetual use
  • Worldwide use allowed
  • Limited print run (e.g. 500,000 copies)
  • Non-exclusive rights

Royalty-free is popular for commercial use in advertising, websites, merchandise, etc. But restrictions apply, like no resale of standalone files. Understanding the terms is key.

How do you know if something is royalty-free?

The easiest way to check if something is royalty-free is to look for the license terms. Many royalty-free websites advertise this on their homepage, such as Shutterstock.

Shutterstock royalty-free example

Another useful tip is that most microstock sites are royalty-free. If you are uncertain about the type of license required, contacting customer service is always an option to avoid purchasing the wrong license unintentionally.

Royalty-free license terms of use

When you purchase a license for a stock asset, such as an image, video, or song, you are granted a set of rights that define how you can use it. While the specific terms of the license may differ between stock agencies, there are several common features that define the royalty-free (RF) license.

Common features of RF licensing

  • One-time payment: With an RF license, you only need to pay once for the license, even if you use the asset multiple times. However, some RF licenses may have limits on the number of copies allowed (e.g. 500,000) unless you purchase an extended license.
  • Perpetuity: RF licenses have no time limit. Once you purchase a license, you can use it indefinitely.
  • Worldwide: You can use an RF-licensed asset anywhere in the world.
  • Non-exclusive: RF licenses do not grant exclusive rights to the asset, meaning others can use it at the same time.
  • No attribution required: You are not required to give credit to the creator of the asset when using it, making it versatile for commercial purposes.
  • Ownership: Purchasing an RF license does not transfer ownership of the asset to you. It simply grants you permission to use it without infringing on copyrights. To own the content, you must contact the creator and arrange for a transfer of ownership.

Note that some stock agencies only allow access to royalty-free images as part of a subscription plan, and canceling the subscription may terminate your license. This is not a true royalty-free license and should be avoided.

How RF licenses differ

While all RF licenses have the common features listed above, there are differences between them that can affect how you can use the asset:

  • Prints/copies: Most RF licenses limit the number of reproductions allowed to around 500,000. If you need more, you’ll need to purchase an extended license.
  • Price: The cost of RF licenses varies from as low as $0.14 to several hundred dollars.
  • Buying options: RF licenses are typically available through subscriptions or on-demand purchases.
  • Resale rights: Standard RF licenses do not typically allow the use of assets for merchandise. You may need to purchase an extended license for this.
  • Sharing: Standard RF licenses are generally limited to one person. Some stock agencies allow sharing among team members, while others require additional rights.
  • Legal coverage: Stock agencies may provide legal coverage if the use of RF-licensed assets results in legal issues. The amount of coverage may vary from less than $100 to unlimited.

Restrictions to RF licenses

In addition to the common features, RF licenses may have additional restrictions related to morality and fraud. Generally, you are not allowed to:

  • Resell or redistribute the asset as is.
  • Share the asset with others or store it on a shared drive.
  • Use the asset in adult content or fraudulent campaigns.
  • Manipulate images to appear as if models promote any commercial or political campaign.
  • Use images as part of a trademark or logo design.

Here are two examples of improper use that could be added:

Examples of improper use

Example #1: Using an image of a public figure to imply endorsement:

Stock images should not be edited or distorted to depict public figures endorsing a product or service without their consent. For example, a stock photo should not be photoshopped to make it appear as though a celebrity is promoting a dietary supplement they have not officially endorsed.

Example #2: Using images to promote illegal or dangerous activities:

RF images should not be used to glorify or encourage objectively dangerous or unlawful conduct. This includes promoting the use of recreational drugs, depicting minors in a sexualized way, or advocating other criminal behaviors. Even if edited, stock photos should not be used for purposes that a reasonable person would find unethical.

Types of royalty-free licenses

Most stock photo agencies offer two types of royalty-free licenses: the standard and extended (enhanced) license. However, some agencies, such as Getty Images and Canva, only offer one type of royalty-free license with the rights of an extended license.

Standard royalty-free license

The standard royalty-free (RF) image license is the simplest and most commonly sold license for between $0.22 and $15. It is suitable for blogs, social media, and personal projects and can also be used for prints (usually less than 500,000 copies) and commercial purposes. It is cheaper and can be bought with subscriptions, making it the most affordable way to get licensed images. The standard RF licenses usually come with an indemnity clause.

Extended royalty-free license

On the other hand, extended licenses grant additional rights, such as the ability to make unlimited copies (more than the 500,000 limit of the standard RF license), use it for resale (merchandise, packaging, items where the object is the primary value), and receive a higher license fee ($250,000). They usually cost more than standard licenses, typically between $50 and $100, but can go as high as $500. Since they are used much more infrequently, they are almost exclusively sold on-demand either in packs, with credits, or as single purchases.

Choosing between the two RF licenses at Adobe Stock.
Choosing between the two RF licenses at Adobe Stock.

Comparison of standard vs. extended

The standard royalty-free (RF) image license is cheaper, offers less indemnity, has a print limit, and cannot be used in trade goods or as a standalone good. In contrast, the extended RF license can be used in trade goods and as a standalone product but may not be resold unchanged.

The following table briefly summarizes the differences between standard and extended royalty-free licenses:

Get withSubscriptions, on-demandOn-demand
Indemnity ~$10,000*~$250,000*
Web impressionsUnlimitedUnlimited
Standalone useNoYes
Resale standaloneNoNo
* Indemnity amount varies a lot between stock agencies. The provided values represent the most common amounts.

How much do royalty-free images cost?

Royalty-free images cost between $1 and $20 if you buy them individually. The price depends on the stock photo agency, image resolution, purchase option, licensing terms, and quality. If you buy them in bulk or as part of a subscription, they can cost between $0.20 and $5.00.

Individual image costs

RF images typically cost from $1 to $20 per image when purchased individually. The exact price depends on factors like:

  • Stock agency’s pricing model
  • Image size and resolution
  • Demand and popularity of the image
  • Type of license purchased

Bulk/subscription costs

If you buy RF images in bulk or with a subscription plan, the per-image cost is much lower, usually $0.20–$5.00. For example:

  • Monthly subscriptions give access to thousands of images for one flat fee
  • Bulk credits allow you to pre-pay for a number of images at a discounted rate

Extended license costs

When purchased with an extended royalty-free license, images can cost anywhere from $50 to $500 or more. Extended licenses provide more usage rights.

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.

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

1. Free trials

Many stock photo sites offer trial periods that allow you to get free of 10 or more stock photos. You can get over 100 free stock images using all of them. 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 vs copyright-free

Royalty-free and copyright-free are often used interchangeably, but there is an important distinction between the two:

Royalty-free: With a royalty-free license, you pay a one-time fee to use copyrighted content according to the terms of the agreement. The copyright still belongs to the creator. You cannot claim or resell the work as your own.

Copyright-free: A copyright-free work is in the public domain, meaning the copyright has expired or the creator has deliberately relinquished their rights. Copyright-free content can be used without any restrictions or payments. However, confirming the public domain status is essential before using an image labeled as copyright-free.

When is copyright-free appropriate to use?

Copyright-free works are ideal for situations where you want maximum flexibility and no licensing restrictions. This includes:

  • Educational materials and books where costs need to be minimized.
  • Content that will be shared extensively or distributed widely. For example, content used on websites with high traffic volumes.
  • Works that will be modified significantly or used as part of a new derivative work.

However, copyright-free content is riskier from a legal standpoint. You must verify the source and public domain status to avoid potential copyright infringement issues. Royalty-free is typically preferred for commercial applications where legal protections are needed.

Frequently asked questions

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

A “royalty-free” image license is a common arrangement. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the license to use the image is free, but rather that the image can be used without paying additional royalties (basically a payment for each reuse of the image) to the copyright holder.

What does royalty-free video mean?

“Royalty-free” simply means that a piece of content is free of royalties, i.e., it’s not subject to ongoing payments. When a song or work of art is used in a video, the creator often negotiates some form of ongoing payment for the use of that content.

Is royalty-free the same as copyright-free?

No. Royalty-free generally means the payment of a one-time fee for the right to use a photograph (or other copyrighted, patented, or trademarked work) on the agreed-upon terms, without ongoing royalties for future use. This doesn’t mean that the work is copyright free.

Does royalty-free mean free for commercial use?

A royalty-free image isn’t necessarily free for commercial use – that’s, any use that could lead to the purchase or sale of something. The most reliable image services charge a fee for a license that allows you to use the image for commercial or non-commercial purposes, as long as you comply with the terms.

Can I use royalty-free images for commercial use?

Yes, you can use royalty-free images for commercial purposes. This includes use in advertising, marketing, social media, and even merchandise. However, you may not resell a standalone file unless you have written permission from the copyright holder.

Is royalty-free the same as free?

No, royalty-free means that you pay a one-time fee in exchange for the right to use copyrighted content according to the terms of the agreement without having to pay royalties for further use. Free, on the other hand, means that you do not have to pay anything to use copyrighted content.

Can I use royalty-free images in videos?

Yes, royalty-free images can be used in videos, including for commercial purposes like marketing or advertising videos. Just ensure the video follows the terms of the royalty-free license and does not exceed any limits on impressions or circulation specified in the license.

Do royalty-free licenses allow me to modify or edit images?

It depends on the specific license terms. Many standard royalty-free licenses allow moderate edits like cropping, color changes, and minor touch-ups but do not permit significant alterations. You’ll need to review the license to see what edits are acceptable. Some extended licenses may allow more flexibility for image modifications.

Recent trends

The royalty-free space has seen several shifts toward more flexible and affordable licensing models:

  • More permissible licenses: Some agencies now offer licenses allowing modifications and remixing of content. For example, Adobe Stock’s premium collection includes an “enhanced license” with fewer usage restrictions.
  • Growth of free sites: Sites like Unsplash, Pexels, and Pixabay offer curated royalty-free images usable for free, with relaxed licensing terms. Their extensive libraries make them popular sources.
  • Hybrid licensing: Services like Canva allow both subscription-based and per-item purchases. This provides flexibility for different use cases and budgets.
  • Market growth: The global RF content market is predicted to grow steadily at around a 7.7% CAGR through 2023 as online content volume increases across websites, social media, and advertising.
  • Blockchain licensing: Cryptocurrency technology is being explored to facilitate automated licensing and usage tracking of creative digital assets.


  1. Wikipedia contributors. Royalty-free. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. November 21, 2021, 08:53 UTC. Accessed July 26, 2022.
  2. Jan. How Are Copyright Free and Royalty Free Different? Copyright House. November 23, 2020. Accessed July 26, 2022.
  3. Wikipedia contributors. Royalty payment. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. July 15, 2022, 19:42 UTC. Accessed July 26, 2022.


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