Royalty-free Explained (2023)

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What does royalty-free mean?

The term “royalty-free” refers to the right to use copyrighted material or intellectual property without having to pay royalties for each use. After you pay a one-time fee, you may use the licensed content permanently, worldwide, and in multiple projects.

Since you pay for the royalty-free license only once – the first time – it’s not only cheap but also practical due to its simplicity. However, royalty-free licenses are sometimes limited to a certain number of copies and only one user. To get around that, you need to buy an extended license, but more about that later.


The terms “royalty-free” and “royalty free” mean the same. They are two versions of the same phrase. “Royalty-free” is also often abbreviated as “RF”.

How do you know if something is royalty-free?

The surest way to check if something is royalty-free is to read the license terms. But nobody wants to do that, especially if you don’t know what to look for. Luckily, it’s much easier because most royalty-free websites brag about being royalty-free on their homepage. Let’s take a look at Shutterstock:

Shutterstock royalty-free example

A good rule of thumb is also that most microstock sites are royalty-free. And if you wanted to get a rights-managed license, you would have to contact customer service, so you don’t have to worry about unintentionally buying the wrong license.

Royalty-free licence terms of use

When you buy a license, you get a set of rights that govern how you can and cannot use the licensed object (image, video, song, etc.). The exact license terms vary from stock agency to stock agency, but the main features that define the royalty-free license are common to all.

Common RF features

Royalty-free licensing can be recognized based on several features:

  • One-time payment: A royalty-free license is available with a one-time fee, meaning you pay only once, even if you use the asset multiple times. However, you must pay attention because some RF licenses don’t allow more than 500,000 copies unless you get an extended RF license.
  • Perpetuity: There is no time restriction for RF licenses. Once you buy it, you may use it forever.
  • Worldwide: You may use content licensed under an RF license anywhere in the world.
  • Non-exclusive: RF licenses do not grant you exclusive rights over the image, meaning others can use it at the same time as you do.
  • No attribution required: You do not have to provide credit, which makes the royalty-free license very versatile and useful for commercial purposes.
  • Ownership: You don’t become the content’s rightful owner by purchasing a royalty-free license. The license permits you to use the content without infringing copyrights. To own the content, you must get in touch with its creator and arrange the ownership transfer.


Some stock photo agencies only let you use royalty-free images if you’re subscribed to their plans. After you cancel, you may no longer use it. This is not a true royalty-free license and we recommend you avoid these agencies.

How RF licenses differ

Every stock photo agency defines its own rules for its royalty-free licenses. While all abide by the key features listed above, they differ in the following:

  • Prints/copies: Most stock photo sites limit the reproduction number of the standard royalty-free license to around 500,000. You need to buy an extended (royalty-free) license, which costs more, to surpass this limit.
  • Price: Royalty-free licenses for stock images cost from $0.14 to several hundreds of dollars.
  • Buying options: Most popular are subscriptions, but you can also get them on-demand.
  • Resale rights: Most stock photo sites don’t let you use the standard royalty-free license for merchandise, but you need to buy an extended license.
  • Sharing: A standard royalty-free license is generally limited to one person. While some stock agencies allow them to be shared across the team, others require you to buy additional rights to do so.
  • Legal coverage: Stock photo agencies vouch for the legitimacy of the images they license by covering all or a part of your legal expenses if the royalty-free license gets you in trouble. This ranges from less than $100 to unlimited (Adobe Stock) and is a good indication of the stock site’s legitimacy.

Restrictions to RF licenses

In most cases, a royalty-free license comes with additional restrictions based on morality and fraud. However, most of the features listed are common to all licenses.

You may not:

  • resell or redistribute the image as it is. You may only use it as a part of a bigger design;
  • share the image with others, store it on a shared drive, or gift it;
  • use the image in adult content, such as sexually explicit scenes;
  • use the images as a part of scam campaigns;
  • manipulate images to appear as if models promote any commercial or political campaign;
  • use images as a part of a trademark or logo design.

Types of royalty-free licenses

Most stock photo agencies sell two types of royalty-free licenses: the standard and extended (enhanced). Some even sell multiple extended licenses to make the licensing simpler for you (although it complicates it).

However, some stock photo agencies (Getty Images, Canva) offer only one type of royalty-free license with the rights of an extended license.

Standard RF license

Most stock photo agencies (Shutterstock, Adobe Stock, iStock, Depositphotos, iStock, Dreamstime, etc.) sell the standard royalty-free image license for between $0.22 and $15. It’s the simplest license they offer and is great for blogs, social media, and personal projects, but can also be used for prints (usually less than 500,000 copies) and commercial purposes.

Compared to the extended licenses, the standard RF can be bought with subscriptions, which are the cheapest way to get them. Also, the standard RF licenses usually come with an indemnity than the extended RF licenses.

Extended RF license

The purpose of extended licenses, as the name implies, is to grant additional rights. For most stock agencies, this means you can make unlimited copies (more than the ~500,000 of the standard license RF) of an object, use it for resale (merchandise, packaging, items where the object is the primary value), and receive a higher license fee (~250,000).

Because of the broader licensing terms, extended licenses cost more than standard usually between $50 and $100, but can get as high as $500. Since they’re used much more infrequently, they are almost exclusively sold on-demand (Dreamstime sells them with subscriptions), 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.

Standard vs extended royalty-free license

The main difference between the standard RF license and the extended RF license is that the standard RF license is cheaper, offers less indemnity, usually has a print limit, and cannot be used in trade goods or as a standalone good. 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 App. $10,000*App. $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, exact 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.

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

All royalty-free prices compared

In the following table, we have compared the prices of RF for subscription, on-demand, and extended license images. We have ranked the agencies in ascending order according to the lowest possible image price

Stock agencySubscriptionsOn-demandExtended l.
Can Stock Photo$0.14–$0.98$0.80–$7.50$70
Adobe Stock$0.26–$9.99$8.00–$9.99$79.99
Getty Images$50–$499
Royalty-free image pricing comparison.

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

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.

Best royalty-free stock photo sites

After reviewing over 30 stock photo websites, we’ve selected the 4 best for royalty-free images based on the number of images, quality of images, licensing terms, prices, customer support, and features.

1. Shutterstock

Shutterstock is the best stock photo website because it’s the most images in its database, with over 393 million images, and another 200 thousand images added daily. Thanks to Shutterstock’s strict technical standards, an endless supply of beautiful and professional photos, vectors, videos, and music of the highest quality is guaranteed. There are several purchase options, including subscriptions for image and video packages, subscriptions for unlimited music downloads, mixed downloads, and editorial content packages. Besides, you can try the offer for 30 days and download 10 free images during that time.

2. Adobe Stock

Adobe Stock is the best stock photo site for graphic designers because it integrates beautifully with Creative Cloud. It integrates well with Adobe apps and allows users to test photos in their designs before they buy them. This way, you only pay for the photos that appear in the final version of your project. This feature can save you a lot of money and time. Stock photos, videos, and other assets can be purchased with a low-cost subscription or with more flexible credits. The most notable feature is Adobe’s generous free trial, which lets you download 10, 25, or 40 stock images for free. The number of images you can download for free depends on the subscription you choose.

3. iStock

Because of its flexible subscriptions at very low prices and high discounts with promo codes, iStock, formerly iStockphoto, is the best image database for commercial purposes. However, iStock isn’t ideal for commerce because of the high cost of extended licenses, which is higher than Shutterstock, Adobe Stock, and Depositphotos. In January 2022, iStock launched a free trial that’s only available in a few countries.

4. Depositphotos

Depositphotos is a Florida-based RF microstock photo agency. Their image collection includes 224 million high-quality photos, vectors, videos, and illustrations. Depositphotos is a great option for bloggers and small businesses because they offer incredible e-commerce images at very low prices when purchased in small packages compared to other providers. Depositphotos, like our other favorites, offers a free trial for 10 images, but it only lasts 7 days, which can go by quickly.

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.

Royalty-free license Summary

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

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


  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.

About your guide

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Matic Broz

Matic Broz is a multifaceted creative professional, with experience as a photographer, graphic designer, and business owner. He has a decade of experience in helping other creatives improve their craft and start their own businesses. His writing and research have been featured in notable publications such as The Guardian, PetaPixel, and USA Today. Additionally, his scientific research has been recognized with a cover feature in the prestigious MDPI-owned journal. In his leisure time, he enjoys photography, hiking, and spending time with dogs. Read more

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