What is video licensing?

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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Stock video licensing

Every time you tune into your favorite movie on Netflix, hit play on a YouTube tutorial, or share that hilarious cat video with your friends, there’s an invisible framework at work ensuring creators get their due. Yet, it remains as elusive and misunderstood as the algorithm that suggests your next binge-worthy series.

Let me demystify “video licensing” for you.

“Video licensing” sounds clinical, much like “DRM” or “copyright” once did. To many, it’s just another technical jargon you come across when uploading or downloading videos. However, after diving deep into the recesses of film forums, attending virtual seminars, and even engaging in heated debates over shared clips on social media platforms, I’ve pieced together a comprehensive understanding of this crucial cog in the digital content machinery. Let’s unravel its intricacies together.”

Definition of video license

Video licensing refers to the legal process of obtaining permission to use video content for a specific purpose. It involves an agreement between the copyright owner of the video and another party who wants to use the video.

The license outlines the terms and conditions of the usage, such as the duration, distribution, and intended audience of the video. There are different types of video licenses, including exclusive and non-exclusive licenses, as well as different pricing models, such as fixed license fees and revenue-sharing arrangements.

Here are some key points to consider about video licensing:

Key video licensing definitions

Understanding licensing terminology can be a challenge, especially in the context of stock video. So, here’s a list of key definitions and vocabulary for stock video licensing, grouped under various categories for better understanding.

1. Video licensing types

Royalty-Free (RF): This is the most popular type of licensing for stock videos. Once you buy a royalty-free license, you can use the video in multiple projects without having to pay extra fees. However, the video can still be bought and used by others.

Rights Managed (RM): A more restrictive type of license, rights managed licenses allow you to use the video for a specific purpose, time period, and geographic location. You can buy exclusive rights, which means no one else can use the video while your license is active.

» Dive deeper: Read our comparison of RF vs RM

Extended/Enhanced License: This is a type of royalty-free license that gives you more rights than the standard RF license. It may allow for more copies, wider distribution, use in products for resale, and more.

Editorial Use Only: This license means the video can only be used for newsworthy, public interest, or educational content. It can’t be used for commercial purposes because it may contain identifiable brands, locations, people without model releases, or private properties.

2. Use-based definitions

Commercial Use: If a video is used for promoting a product, service, or brand, it’s considered a commercial use. This typically requires a license that includes commercial rights.

Non-Commercial Use: This includes uses that are not intended for profit, like personal projects or educational content. Some licenses only allow non-commercial use.

Derivative Work: This is a work that is based on or derived from one or more already existing works. Common derivative works include translations, musical arrangements, and dramatizations of a work, among others.

Synchronization Rights: This refers to the right to use the video in synchronization or timing relation with other visual or audio elements.

3. People and Property

Model Release: This is a legal release signed by the person(s) in the video granting permission to use their likeness in the video.

Property Release: Similar to a model release, a property release is a legal agreement from the owner of property (like a house or a pet) that appears in the video.

Exclusive vs. Non-Exclusive License

An exclusive license grants the licensee sole rights to use the material, meaning the licensor cannot sell it to anyone else or use it themselves during the licensing period. This type of license ensures uniqueness but often comes at a higher cost.

A non-exclusive license allows the licensor to sell the same material to multiple buyers and continue using it themselves. These licenses are generally less expensive and allow for wider material use, but they don’t guarantee uniqueness in usage.

How to buy a video license?

Buying a license from a stock footage site involves a series of steps starting from identifying the appropriate video content to finalizing the payment process. The process is generally straightforward and user-friendly, designed to accommodate both beginners and professionals in need of video content.

Follow these steps for a single video purchase:

  1. Find the video you like
  2. Pick the license you need
  3. Complete the purchase
  4. Download the licensed video
  5. Maintain bill (it’s your proof)
  6. Use videos within licensing terms

However, most video editors choose subscriptions where the order is a bit different. It’s usually better to subscribe first because it’s easier to pick the best plan that way. But keep in mind that subscriptions are usually limited to royalty-free licenses only:

  1. Pick the subscription
  2. Find the video you like
  3. Download the video
  4. Use the video within licensing terms

Legal consequences of improper licensing

Legal consequences associated with video licensing can vary widely, as they depend on the nature of the violation and the jurisdiction in which the infringement occurs. However, here are some general potential legal consequences:

  1. Copyright Infringement Lawsuits: The most common legal consequence of using unlicensed video content or violating the terms of a video license is being sued for copyright infringement. The copyright owner can take legal action and demand compensation for the unauthorized use of their material.
  2. Statutory Damages: In many jurisdictions, copyright infringement can lead to statutory damages. This is a monetary compensation that the infringer has to pay to the copyright owner. In the United States, for example, statutory damages for copyright infringement can range from $750 to $30,000 per work, and up to $150,000 per work for willful infringement.
  3. Loss of Profits: If the infringement has led to a profit for the infringer, a court may order the profits to be paid to the copyright owner. The court might also stop the sale of infringing works (injunction), which can lead to additional financial loss for the infringer.
  4. Legal Fees and Court Costs: If a copyright owner successfully sues for infringement, the infringer may also be ordered to pay the copyright owner’s legal fees and court costs.
  5. Criminal Penalties: In some severe cases of copyright infringement, criminal charges could be brought against the infringer. These cases are relatively rare and typically involve large-scale, deliberate infringement intended for financial gain. Penalties can include substantial fines and even imprisonment.
  6. Reputation Damage: Beyond the direct legal and financial consequences, copyright infringement can also harm a person’s or company’s reputation. Professional relationships can be strained or broken, and public trust can be lost.

» Learn more: What is copyright infringement?

Stock vs. custom video licensing

Stock video licensing tends to be cheaper and quicker to get, making it a popular choice for projects with tight budgets or deadlines. However, the tradeoff is that the footage is not unique and could appear in other brands’ content.

Custom video licensing, on the other hand, involves more negotiation and higher costs, but the benefit is a video tailored to your brand’s needs and message. With custom videos, you can maintain control over the uniqueness of your content, providing a unique customer experience.

Stock video licensing

Stock videos have a more straightforward licensing process since they are ready-made and readily available. When you purchase a stock video, you are actually buying a license to use the footage, not the footage itself. The two primary types of stock video licenses are royalty-free and rights-managed:

  1. Royalty-Free (RF): Once purchased, you can use the video in multiple projects without having to pay extra fees. The same video can be bought and used by others.
  2. Rights-Managed (RM): More restrictive and precise, this license allows you to use the video for a specific purpose, time period, and geographic location. Exclusive rights can also be purchased, which prevent others from using the video while your license is active.

Custom video licensing

Custom video licensing is often more complex due to the bespoke nature of the content. A custom video license may come with restrictions regarding distribution, display, modifications, and rights to subsequent versions of the work.

One key consideration is exclusivity. When you commission a custom video, the licensing agreement often grants you exclusive rights to use that video, ensuring your brand’s content remains unique. However, it’s important to explicitly negotiate these rights, as they may not be automatically included.

Another element unique to custom video licensing is the handling of derivative works. The licensing agreement should specify who owns the rights to any material derived from the original video.

Fair Use in video licensing

As a unique legal doctrine, Fair Use allows limited use of copyrighted material without the need for permission from the copyright owner. The application of Fair Use hinges on the belief that the public is entitled to freely use portions of copyrighted materials for purposes such as commentary, criticism, news reporting, and scholarly reports, contributing to the advancement of learning and the free exchange of ideas.

Fair Use is a nuanced and complex legal concept, and its application can differ on a case-by-case basis. Courts typically consider four factors in determining whether a particular use of copyrighted material constitutes Fair Use:

  1. Purpose and Character of Use: This considers whether the use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes. A transformative use (i.e., significantly altering the original work or using the work for a new purpose) often falls under Fair Use.
  2. Nature of the Copyrighted Work: Here, courts review the type of work being used. Factual and published works are more likely to allow Fair Use than highly creative or unpublished works.
  3. Amount and Substantiality of the Portion Used: This involves examining the quantity of the copyrighted material used in relation to the work as a whole. Using smaller portions of a work is more likely to be considered Fair Use, but even using a small portion can infringe copyright if it constitutes the “heart” of the work.
  4. Effect on the Market or Value of the Copyrighted Work: If the use in question negatively impacts the market for or value of the copyrighted work, it’s less likely to be considered Fair Use.

When it comes to video content, Fair Use can be particularly relevant in scenarios such as film reviews, news reports, educational content, and parodies. For instance, a film critic may use short clips from a movie in their review or a news reporter might incorporate footage from a recent event into their broadcast. In these cases, the video is being used to provide commentary, criticism, or reporting, which are protected under Fair Use.


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