When Is An Image Free?

Royalty free? Free use? Licensed? When is an image really free to use on your website or social media?

James Braid, 23rd October 2018

Recently we were contacted by one of our members who needed some advice regarding an image they were using on their website. A major image agency had informed her that the image belonged to them and was therefore being used illegally. The agency was asking for the full fee for the use of the image, backdated to when it was first published on the website and had issued a ‘Takedown Notice’

Of course our member had no intention of using this image illegally. She had found the image on one of the many Stock Image websites and was under the impression that the image was ‘Royalty Free’ and wanted to know if we could help. Our advice was to pay the fees because in fact the image was indeed being used illegally.

What we could do was to advise when an image is free and when it is not. Many people are under the same impression that images marked as Royalty Free are actually free to use – it does not! In almost all cases you pay a fee for them.

So what does Royalty Free mean?

Royalty Free means there are no restrictions on the image use.

It does not, repeat not, mean free to use at no cost.

It’s a term used for a licensing method where image rights are sold at a flat rate for almost all purposes. You pay the flat rate charge and then you can use the image in print, digital media, banners etc, and at any size, for any length of time. As the image has no restrictions on use you may well find that many people are using the same image.

This is in contrast to rights-managed licensing, when an image license is priced based on how the image will be used. Rights-managed licenses usually come with usage restrictions, including length of time, regions, image size, and more. This type of licensing is usually quite expensive and really only useful if you want to use an image that nobody else can use. Even then, you will only have the rights for a set length of time and have restrictions on where you use it. It’s not usually cost effective for a small business.

Nowadays, the majority of stock images are licensed as royalty-free, which offers buyers both greater flexibility and affordability than rights-managed.

It should be noted that most images from Stock Image sites have Meta Tags, the image owner can track down when & where the image is being used. Regular ‘sweeps’ scan the internet and check their images have been paid for & used correctly.

There are Stock Image sites who do offer Free to Use, images. There are often conditions attached, usually that you attribute the image when you use it – you have a note of who the photographer is for example on the image or at the bottom of the page. We recommend you use these resources.

This genuine error cost our member almost £400 and a great deal time in taking down the image and checking all other images on her website and other marketing materials.

Please check all your images. Now!

We have included a link to the UK advice notice

Copyright Notice: digital images, photographs and the internet’


PHN use images from the Free to Use sites: Pixabay and Picjumbo