How To License Photos


In essence, when you download a picture from a stock image, you do not acquire the image itself, but the right to dispose of it. Sometimes this right is not limited by any restrictions, while in other cases, there are rules which should be observed. Most of the photos and images on the Internet are protected by copyright. It should always be considered when using them, especially - for commercial purposes. There are several types to license a photo for other people's use, among which are free and paid. Selling photos on Internet resources (photo banks and photo stocks) is carried out in accordance with numerous types of licenses. Their difference is only in terms of the use of the images and the rights to them.

Let's understand what image licenses are. It is helpful for designers and artists working with other people's images, photographers, and illustrators.

What types of photography licenses exist?

What types of photography licenses exist

First, let's understand the types of licenses once and for all. As a rule, sites that provide free images prescribe the use of their content:

➤ GNU (GNU Free Documentation License) is a license used for free software developed by the eponymous Foundation. The GNU FDL allows you to reproduce, distribute and modify the software, but only by granting all derivative works a similar license.

➤ Free Artworks just like the first license, but only in the field of art.

➤ Creative Commons - a license that covers all kinds of content.

When you search for images on the Internet, the Creative Commons license works, so we'll focus on it in more detail.

Then, all licenses are divided into paid and free, which are divided into standard and extended. The cost of licenses depends on many parameters.

Free licenses images

There is an illusion that a picture downloaded from a free stock site can be used as you please. But this is not always the case. Is it allowed to put the picture on the product packaging or only insert it into a school presentation? Is it necessary to indicate the author? Is it possible to edit a picture in Photoshop beyond recognition, or should it be left unchanged? All these conditions are spelt out in the licenses.

The use of free images, as said earlier, is regulated by the Creative Commons group of licenses. It's an American nonprofit organization that has come up with different versions of agreements for the free distribution of content. They are based on four conditions:

  1. Attribution - you must always indicate authorship.
  2. No Derivatives - you can not violate the integrity of the image. If you downloaded such an image, you could only use it in its entirety and without processing. You cannot crop a rectangular photo to a square. Color repainting is not allowed either.
  3. Non-Commercial - do not use the image for commercial purposes.
  4. ShareAlike - you need to distribute your work on the same terms as the borrowed image. Say you took a photo with the condition of attribution, played with it in the editor, and want to put it on the stock. Then you should not only mention the author of the original but also demand to indicate authorship from those who will download your work.

There are six types of licenses based on these terms:

  1. CC Attribution - when using the downloaded materials in your work, you need to indicate the author of these pictures.
  2. CC Attribution-ShareAlike - you need to specify the authorship and require those who will use your work to specify the authorship. For example, if you made a presentation template with someone else's picture. You would want to distribute it on the Internet, not only need to mention the name of the author of the original but also to spell out that the use of design people should always refer to the author.
  3. CC Attribution-NoDerivs - you have to mention the authorship and not make any changes to the original image. For example, a photo in its original form can be placed on an advertising banner and mention the author. But you can not cut, repaint and finish drawing the picture.
  4. CC Attribution-NonCommercial - you need to indicate authorship and use the picture for non-commercial purposes. For example,  it is okay for a journalistic article, but you can’t use the packaging of the goods.
  5. CC Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike - you need to indicate authorship, use the picture for noncommercial purposes and distribute their work on the same terms.
  6. CC Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs - you need to indicate authorship, use the picture for non-commercial purposes, and do not make any changes to the source.

But there are two more types of licenses from the Creative Commons group that do not have the mentioned limitations:

  • CC0 or Public Domain - the nicest license, giving you free use without attribution.
  • CC+ - license allows the author to prescribe additional conditions for users. For example, the author can prohibit commercial use of the picture for a wide range of users with this license. But he can allow it for advertising to a limited number of people. The need for such licenses arises quite rarely.

CC0 is exactly what we know from most free photo stocks. Usually, they put pictures that can be taken for free for commercial use, without mentioning the authors and with the ability to change the image as you want. But the situation is different with vector graphics on stock sites: C00 is found very rarely. Usually, you have to specify the author and offer a paid license for those who do not want to.

Paid licenses 

Paid licenses

Paid resources do not have universal licenses like Creative Commons. They also have limitations. The most popular photography license on commercial stock exchanges is Royalty-Free. It is acquired for use in commerce if the circulation is not too large. The most rarely offered license, Rights-Managed, is the most expensive and can be found only on large stock exchanges. Here are variants of the most popular paid licenses.


The buyer pays once and can use the image without time restrictions. Exclusive rights remain with the author: he can sell the picture many times, and to whomever he wants. The contract also specifies additional conditions: for example, a limit on the print run for the buyer. 

Extended Royalty-Free

It is the same, but the print run is unlimited. By purchasing this license, the client will be able to use the picture at least a billion times for an unlimited time. As a rule, it is used for commercial purposes, so it’s a business license for photography. The cost per photo under an extended license is usually 5-10 times more expensive than under a standard license.


It is used in newspapers, magazines, books, and other media to illustrate events and incidents. Often these photos are images of people. It does not require the written consent of the models (the people in the picture). However, the license does not cover some types of photos, such as large-scale portraits. Such images may not be used for advertising or other commercial purposes. It could be the logos of other people's brands and people who have not agreed to their appearance in the ads. 

The license is intended for use by a legal entity (a company or the editorial staff of a particular media outlet).


This license is also called a managed rights license and is used only on large photo stocks. It gives an exclusive right to use the image or the right to limit its use to a specific region. In this case, a buyer can be sure that the image will not be used for competing purposes. The history of sales and use of the image is preserved. Its cost depends on a number of factors, including:

  • purpose of use (where and how the photo will be used);
  • area and industry of use (news, charity, advertising campaign, etc.);
  • territory (state) of use;
  • duration of use and number of copies of the image;
  • exclusivity and uniqueness of the image.


It is a license in which a specific image is used in the project and for a specific purpose. In this case, you need to point to the purpose for which the photo will be used when applying for a license. In this case, you do not need to pay anything extra if you later have to use the same photo in the same project again. For example, you buy an image to illustrate an advertisement for your services (on the Internet or elsewhere on physical media). You can use the same photo many times if you specify all the project details.

Use cases for the photography license

People often ask questions about licenses. For example, one client wanted to buy a photo to make decorative photo wallpaper. In this case, it doesn't matter if he hangs them in his apartment, a coffee shop, office, or other room - it's a standard license. Because the client is not going to further resell the image. 

But if the same picture is placed in outdoor advertising, you need an extended license. Illustrations or photos for puzzles - an extended license because the pictures were purchased for resale. 

If a company buys images to put on business cards, they can be limited to the standard license. Yes, they use the images to design business cards, which then sell. But customers will not resell them and will use them for personal purposes.

Mugs, T-shirts. Here we need to consider two cases.

  1.  If mugs and t-shirts are needed for personal or corporate use, the license - is the standard. 
  2. If products with images will be further sold to third parties (the same stores that sell T-shirts with various prints), the photography license is an extended business license for photography. It should be remembered that even if the products are made for corporate purposes, the amount should not exceed 500,000 copies. If representatives of any large company with more than 500,000 employees want to make corporate products, an extended license must be purchased.

Printed publications. Newspapers, magazines, and other printing with a total circulation of up to 500,000 copies - standard license, more - extended license. 

Everything that is used in packaging - is always an extended license.

How to find out the information about the photography license?

How to find out the information about the photography license?

You will definitely all necessary information on the stock site. If all the photos are protected by the same license, the information about them is written in a separate section. If the licenses differ, they are usually mentioned in the product cards. Moreover, sometimes you can choose between different types of licenses (at different prices) for the same image.

Often this choice is between Royalty-Free and Extended Royalty-Free, depending on the circulation you want, and between Royalty-Free and CC Attribution free, depending on whether you wish to indicate authorship.

Stocks sometimes have their own additional rules for using images in addition to licenses. For example, many sites do not welcome the sale of images downloaded from them and ask not to upload these images to competitors' sites.

Bottom Line

Copyright enforcement is essential. That’s why you need to license a photo. Although, it is not always justice that punishes violators. The more people buy a particular image, the harder it is to control who uses it and how: so piracy often goes unpunished. But if you get caught, you can get a court summons and a substantial fine.

It is easier to buy licensed images - they are usually not too expensive if you do not acquire exclusive rights. And you should not disregard free sites with a CC0 license: you can find useful materials for various projects there.


How can I get licensed photos for free?

To save money on buying pictures, look through free stock photos first. If you're interested in a particular subject, subscribe to the photographers you like, you'll see their new work immediately.

You can also use resources to search for free license pictures. For example: Stockvault, Pexels, Kaboompics.

How do you license a photo on Google?

For the photography license in Google Images to start showing up, you need to fill in the metadata in the IPTC or markup for each photo on the site. To do this correctly, you can use the tips on setting up structured data, ImageObject in Schema, and IPTC metadata for images in Google Search Help.

Can you use pictures from the Internet without permission?

If a photo is in the public domain on the Internet, that's no reason to use it without the author's permission. It is necessary to check the copyright before use and be sure to specify the author. The best way to use photos legally is to sign a license agreement with the author or copyright holder.

Can you sell my pictures for a license?

Yes. The best place to sell photos online is your website because: you can set your prices, and no one takes a percentage of your money, you have 100% control over how your photos are displayed, and you can set own terms and conditions.

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