Stock Photo Licenses: Legal Compliance While Using Stock Photos

Stock images and stock photos are illustrations and photographs that have been taken professionally, and that are bought on a royalty-free agreement. They can be used multiple times for commercial purposes, such as business cards and business blogs, or personal purposes such as for social media or personal blogs. 

Stock images are mass-produced. When you search for key phrases, such as “woman, conference, blue”, you will often find several pictures of the same scene from different angles to appeal to a maximum number of use cases. Stock photos aren’t commissioned for specific projects – they are supposed to be versatile and convenient while looking sharp and professional. 

Just like commissioned photographs, they communicate an idea or message visually, minus the cost and energy it takes to conduct a professional photo shoot to your specific requirements.

  • Stock images are versatile and convenient for multiple uses, both commercial and personal, with a royalty-free agreement.
  • They offer cost-effectiveness and high quality but may lack originality and specific suitability due to their mass-produced nature.
  • Legal use requires understanding and adhering to different licensing types, with attention to copyright and usage limitations.

What are the Benefits and Drawbacks of Stock Photos?

In this section, we will outline the main benefits and drawbacks of using stock images for your company’s social media, website design, email campaigns, and more. 


The main benefits are as follows:

  • Quick and Affordable: Stock photos save you both time and money. A quick search on a stock photo website will throw up dozens of professionally shot images that you can use without destroying your marketing budget.
  • Quality Images: Stock photos have been taken professionally, so your marketing communications will look cleaner and more stylish than if you used a low-budget, in-house photoshoot with an old DSLR (yep, those are considered old now, time waits for no one).
  • Copyright Law Compliant: Certain content types, such as blogs or news articles, require the use of copyrighted images, and stock photos are a simple and easy way to comply with those rules. You don’t need to get permission from the copyright holder – but more on this later!


There are a few drawbacks to take into consideration when opting for a stock photo. These are our top ones: 

  • Occasionally Unoriginal: Because they are produced in such a way as to appeal to a vast array of situations and uses, stock photos can sometimes look a bit generic. They are frequently used by several different businesses and individuals, which means that the people reading your blog post and seeing the stock photo you chose may vaguely recollect seeing the same photo before. 
  • Not Always Realistic: Since stock photos are designed to look shiny, bright, and appealing, they may not always be accurate representations of the real world. The people posing for stock photos will be models (albeit diverse models), and offices will often have beautiful furniture, ping-pong tables, amazing views, and just the best lighting. Does this sound like your average office? Probably not.
  • Not Always Exactly What You Need: One price that you pay when you use stock photos is that you can’t always get exactly what you want – you have to choose from a preexisting selection. They aren’t tailored to your company specifically.
An office interior enhanced by vibrant paintings showcasing shades of yellow and blue, with a ping pong table occupying a central spot.
Free to use image from Unsplash

How Can I Legally Use Stock Photos? 

As you may have gathered, you can’t just use any picture you find on the internet for your purposes. Often, those images are the intellectual property of another person or legal entity. This is why stock photos exist and why they come with their licenses. It’s even possible to incur a lawsuit for misusing an image. 

Every time you use a stock photo, you have to abide by the terms of the photo’s license. This will usually explain how you are allowed to use the photo, and anything you can’t do with it. When you use the photo, you are essentially agreeing to the terms and conditions, so if you have any doubts, you can double-check things with the image provider. 

What Licenses Are There? 

To legally use stock photos, you need to first understand the different types of licenses. 

Stock companies usually offer three core types of licenses for their images. These are called “rights-managed”, “royalty-free”, and “extended license”. A fourth, “free”, is also available on some websites. 

Rights Managed

With the rights-managed license, you can enjoy more exclusivity than the other two licenses for one big reason: with this license, you can pay based on how often you want to use the image. It’s not a flat fee with endless usage. Use is calculated individually, and takes into account a variety of factors such as the following:

  • How the image will be used
  • Which country/city/street it will be used in
  • The size at which the image will be displayed
  • Where it will be placed
  • How long it will be displayed
  • How visible the image will be

The license only applies to the use agreed upon, and a new license is necessary if you wish to change the way that you use the image. The cost of these licenses will depend on how you wish to use the image and the agreement you come to with the stock image supplier. 

Because they are more picky and specific with how they are used, they are less commonly used, which can also affect price. Just be careful with making the use allowances clear before proceeding with this type of licensed image.

A man stands in the bright lights of the city.
Free to use image from Unsplash


Royalty-free licenses are sold by file size. Because of this, files with high resolution will cost you more than lower-resolution versions of the same image. Unlike the license we outlined above, there are no restrictions when you use royalty-free images. You have the option to use them as often as you need, whether it’s for digital uses or print. 

Royalty-free licenses are nice and easy to use because you don’t have to go back and forth and negotiate conditions if you want to use the image in some other way. However, you should make sure to read the terms of use carefully and look out for common restrictions. Some of these include:

  • No reselling or redistributing the image.
  • Restrictions on sharing, transferring, or gifting images to third parties.
  • Image cannot be used as part of your logo, trademark, or design mark. 
  • The models and properties in the photos can’t be used in such a way as to appear to be directly endorsing a service or product.
  • The picture should not be used to cast aspersions on the models or properties in the images used.

Extended License

The extended license is an evolution of the royalty-free license. As the name would imply, it extends the rights to use the image that you would normally get for your purchase. It’s a one-time fee system, so you only have to pay once, and then you can enjoy exclusive usage right all of the time. 

Unlike its predecessor, however, the images you can get under the extended license are allowed for the following:

  • Unlimited print use.
  • Use in reselling products, which just means that you can use the images on commercially sold items like keychains, printed hoodies, etc.

Free Stock Images License

Finally, and this is a bit of a unicorn in the world of stock photo licenses, you can get free stock image licenses, such as with Unsplash. They detail their licensing terms and conditions as follows:

  • You enjoy an irrevocable, nonexclusive, worldwide copyright license to download, copy, modify, distribute, perform, and use photos for free.
  • Including for commercial purposes.
  • Without permission from or attributing the photographer or Unsplash.
  • However, this license does not include the right to compile photos from Unsplash to replicate a similar or competing service.

This license does not include the right to use:

  • Trademarks, logos, or brands that appear in photos
  • People’s images if they are recognizable in the photos
  • Works of art or authorship that appear in photos

It should be mentioned that this license is tailored to Unsplash. Are there any drawbacks or risks? Yes. While the photographer waives all rights to the images they produce to add them to free stock photo sites, they might not have the right to the models in the pictures.  

You would need to acquire the proper permission to use images of models in commercial photographs, and by the model we mean not only distinguishable people or animals, but also private property, government buildings, landmarks, and trademarks and logos. 

While stock photo sites can’t use images of landmarks such as the Acropolis in Athens without permission, celebrities such as Idris Elba (swoon!), or brand logos such as Nike, they often don’t follow the necessary steps to ensure that permission has been granted. They didn’t read the memo! 

And who does the buck stop with? Can you guess? Because it’s not them. No, the liability of using an image without the proper consent in place falls on the shoulders of the publisher who used the image – not the stock image group. So be aware of the limitations of any images you use.

What About Creative Commons Licenses?

A close up of a surface with creative commons logo printed on it.
Free to use image from Unsplash

Creative Commons licenses are a great way to get photos and images for your professional and personal purposes without having to worry about legal problems.

The Creative Commons is a non-profit organization. It offers free licenses that are easy to use – in fact, Unsplash used to work under this license until it created its license. 

Creators who use these licenses for their images have waived all or some rights to the images, allowing users to modify and use their images as they wish.

That said, not all Creative Commons licenses are the same – each one is a little different depending on the situation.  While some types of Creative Commons images allow commercial use, others don’t. 

You also get the likes of the Creative Commons Zero license that allows you to use the images without attributing them to the creator (the artist), but the majority of them don’t.

What about Google?

You would think that Google would be a great place to source your images, but alas, while your history teacher may have let those shenanigans slide, the world of commercial marketing is a different kettle of fish. 

Google shows you all (or a selection) of the images available on the internet. You have no way of knowing right off the bat whether these images have licenses, what kind of licenses they have, etc.

Somebody somewhere owns that picture you found of a collie pup adorably sniffing a wildflower while a bumblebee lands on his nose, and they might not be best pleased to see you using it without permission. They would be within their rights to file a lawsuit for using Snuffy’s image. 

What about pictures with no obvious copyright sign?

Even without a copyright sign, an image can still be under the protection of copyright laws. You need to make sure that the image is under the public domain category and free from any copyright restrictions to keep yourself safe. 

Fair use 

Fair use means that certain parts of the material can be shared in specific settings, such as in parody or education, without needing to pay the creator or acquire permission. It’s a fairly vague concept, and the United States Copyright Office will have more information.

To Attribute, or Not to Attribute?

A smiling young lady holds a camera.
Free to use image from Unsplash

Usually, it isn’t necessary to attribute credit to the image creator, whether you’re using rights-managed or royalty-free images, unless otherwise stated in the agreement.

However, you might decide you want to credit the photographer out of fairness for the work they’ve done.

Wrapping Up

The world of stock photo licenses is fairly straightforward for the most part; you just have to make sure to read the fine print to avoid things like plagiarism, and be careful when using free stock images, especially if they have pictures of identifiable people and places.

Stock photos are a wonderful, cost-effective solution to many marketing woes, and also a good way for creators to get paid, or at the very least, exposure.

Priyanka Damwani
Priyanka leads the Marketing team at OnlyDomains, where she is responsible for the website, communications and marketing strategy. After majoring in advertising, she joined the domain name industry in 2009 and has worked on channel and customer marketing throughout her career. She has worked across a variety of verticals like branding & visual design, email marketing, optimising conversions, content creation and lead management. She brings over 13 years of experience in the tech, domain name industry and enjoys the mix of creative and data-driven challenges that come her way.