What does royalty-free mean?

Written by Matic Broz - Updated on January 21, 2022

You’ve probably come across the term “royalty-free” before, especially when you were dealing with stock photos, music, fonts, templates, and other forms of creative content. But what exactly does royalty-free mean?

What Does Royalty-Free Mean?

Royalty-free is a type of licensing agreement of an intellectual property that may be used multiple times without needing to pay fees for each use. In other words, it’s a perpetual license with no geographical or time-related restrictions.

Don’t let the “free” part of “royalty-free” mislead you. It refers to the fact that you do not need to pay each time you use the RF content, but only the first time.

You pay the one-time fee to the provider of RF material, which is more often than not a stock (photo) agency. These agencies, such as Shutterstock or Dreamstime, offer content uploaded by creators. The two parties, the stock content agency and the creator, split the fee between themselves.

Regardless of how much you pay for RF content, you never become it’s rightful owner! The RF license only gives you the right to use it within certain and predetermined terms and conditions.

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.

The RF license grants the buyer a set of rights to use the image in certain ways, for a one-time fee. This means that once you pay for the RF licensed image, vector, or illustration, you can use it forever within the previously accepted terms and conditions, without any further payments.

Royalty-free license facts:

  • RF license is a contract that binds you to certain terms and conditions that you must not break.
  • By purchasing a RF license, you can use the content multiple times (there’s no upper limit).
  • You do not receive the ownership. Hence, you may not resell the content or claim it as your own.
  • Only you may use the content. To broaden the RF license to multiple people, you must purchase a multi-use license.

Are Royalty-free images free?

Once you pay the initial fee for the royalty-free license, you are free to use the content multiple times. This means that you do not have to pay for each use.

Royalty-free license vs Enhanced license
Royalty-free license vs Enhanced license (neither is free)

Don’t let the name of the RF license, mislead you. Although the name consists of the word “free”, the part that may confuse some people. The “free” in “Royalty-free” refers to the payment and use type, rather than the cost of the image. Once you pay the one-time fee, you don’t have to pay any more royalties to the agency or the author, even if you use the photo multiple times.

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, but some key features are universal across all stock photo agencies.

  • License is not transferrable: When you purchase a RF license, it’s yours only. You cannot share it, resell it, or even re-gift it. Only you can use it.
  • RF images are not exclusive: Everyone who purchases an RF license to a stock image can use it. This means that several different clients can use the same image. Hence, other licenses give you exclusive rights to the stock image, but these are more expensive. At some stock image, you might find a writing “exclusive RF image” – this doesn’t mean that you’re granted an exclusive license to that image, but that this agency is the only one who has it. You cannot find the same image elsewhere.
  • RF is a perpetual license: Once you purchase the RF license, you may use it for a long as you need to, with no time limitations, whatsoever.
  • Worldwide use: RF license 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.

I listed the key features of an RF license; however, every stock photo agency has its own rules and terms of use. Before you purchase a RF image, you must read and understand the terms, and make sure they fit your needs.

How much does a royalty-free image cost?

RF images 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 royalty-free stock photo sold with subscription plans at 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.

FAQ about royalty-free

RF is a simple license with a lot of details once you start going down the rabbit hole.

I tried answering all your questions, to make sure that you don’t break any rules.

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.

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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