There is a large market for stock photos on the internet, and some services claim that their images are totally free to use. But is it really legal to use stock photography, and can you get in trouble for it?

You can legally use “free” stock photos as long as they are in the public domain, have model and property release forms if there is a specific subject (person or landmark/building) depicted, and state they are free for use. Otherwise, you cannot legally use stock photos on a website without obtaining proper licensing.

If you want to stay clear of any copyright infringement claims, it is best to research how stock photos from the source you’re using are licensed and if they really are free. Photos enhance online content, so it’s important to include good images and use them legally.

How Do Stock Photos Work Legally?

Stock photos are nonspecific images (either photos or digital graphics) that can be used in a wide variety of circumstances. They’re similar to clip art that comes standard with many writing and design programs in many ways. Once these images have been created, they can be licensed by the people or companies that made them. Some services might charge you to download and distribute the images, while others only require attribution. Other services don’t require payment, but you should be more careful when using images from these sources and confirm they are licensed correctly.

Stock images are a great way to break up long paragraphs of text and add life to a website. Because of this, they have risen in popularity as more and more people have created personal websites. Now, website companies that are selling stock images are popping up everywhere.

To legally use stock photos, the user must have the proper license for what they want to use the image for. The three different usages are commercial, editorial, and personal.

  • Commercial License

As the name might suggest, commercial licenses are required if you want to use a stock image to sell a product or otherwise generate profit. (Source)

Most stock photos are available for commercial usage, but not all of them. A stock photo must meet these requirements to be considered for commercial use:

  • They must have all rights cleared
  • They must have model releases (Source)
  • They must have property releases (Source)
  • Editorial License

Editorial usage for stock photos enables the user to use the image for non-commercial applications. Many stock photo websites will have a warning before you download an image that requires an editorial license. For instance, many photos of celebrities or specific products require an editorial license because these entities don’t want to have their brand used to support another person’s business.

Photos for editorial use lack the model and property release forms that commercial photos have, so they cannot be used for commercial gain. Stock photos that only have editorial usage can only be used for:

  • Commentary in newspapers or magazine articles
  • Blogs or websites to describe an idea
  • Non-commercial presentations
  • Personal

Personal usage of a stock photo is just how it sounds, using the photo for yourself. These photos cannot be used for commercial gain or for any purpose that’s covered by editorial photos. If a stock photo is licensed for personal use, it can be used for personal:

  • Posters
  • Prints
  • Reproductions
  • Art

Once you know how you want to use a stock photo, you need to find the right license to fit those needs. The three main types of licenses are Rights-Managed (RM), Royalty-Free (RF), and Extended/Enhanced licenses.

Rights-Managed (RM)

An RM license is a customizable license that can be used to suit your specific needs. It gives the user the right to use the images in a pre-determined way. These licenses are usually designed to only last for a certain length of time. People who hold an RM license have the ability to control who uses the image. (Source) The greatest advantage of the Rights-Managed license is that, for a given time, you have exclusive rights to the image. Another advantage is that the determined usage isn’t preset. You get to request the right to do exactly what you want without restriction.

Some limitations to the Rights-Managed license include:

  • You have to re-license the image to use it in a different medium.
  • Typically these are the most expensive licenses.

Royalty-Free (RF)

So unlike the name suggests, these photos are not completely “free.” Instead, they are free to use indefinitely (with minor restrictions) after making the initial purchase. Royalty-Free licenses are the most commonly used type of licensing for stock photos because they are also the most affordable option.

Some limitations to the Royalty-Free license include:

  • You cannot use RF images to create derivative products. Meaning, you cannot use that image as part of a t-shirt, mug, poster, notebook, etc. (That requires an Extended license.)
  • You usually can only print up to 50,000 copies of the image.
  • The photos are non-exclusive, so anyone can also purchase the same images, which may reduce your uniqueness.


The Extended license is specifically an add-on to the Royalty-Free license. It opens up the options of the RF license without having to determine the exact uses like in the RM license. Since it is a middle-ground licensing option, it is also middle of the pack in terms of price. An Extended license can give you the right to create more copies of the image (sometimes unlimited) and give other people the ability to access and manipulate the images. (Source) It’s a bit more freeform, but you’ll need to make sure you stay within the limits that have been set.

Some limitations of the Extended/Enhanced license include:

  • Agencies determine the extent of how the Extended license upgrades an RF license.
  • Some agencies require you buy an RF license first and an Extended license, which can greatly increase the overall cost.

Where Can I Get Stock Photos?


There are plenty of online stock photo agencies out there. Since there are so many concerns about copyright, property rights, and privacy rights laws, it is always a good idea to get stock photos through a professional company; that way, you know the legal status of the photos offered and can avoid lawsuits. Some stock photo websites might seem to offer a huge library of free photos, but you can’t always tell where they got them from and if they’re truly safe for you to use. Most popular stock photo agencies tend to be very affordable, with millions of downloadable photo options. Here are a few of the top stock photo agencies to be aware of:


Shutterstock is the biggest name in the game and has been selling stock photos for almost two decades. Their experience in the field has led to their extreme success in trouble-free transactions.

  • Largest online photo library: With over 100 Million stock images, vectors and illustrations
  • Royalty-Free license: It gives you wide use rights in commercial and editorial projects for a low, one-time fee
  • Advanced search engine: Reverse image search via computer vision technology, including suggestions for similar images and more accurate results for keyword searches
  • Bonus features: Free online image editor with popular filters and social media dimensions; mobile app for gallery surfing and image bookmarking
  • The network of stock imagery services: Editorial images at Rex Features, stock music at PremiumBeat



iStock, formerly known as iStockphoto and an offshoot of Getty Images, is very similar to Shutterstock and has even been around for a couple more years than them. iStock’s biggest selling point is its exclusive content.

  • Huge library with clear division: they have millions of royalty-free photos, vectors, and illustrations, divided into Signature and Essentials collections
  • Exclusive imagery: The signature collection hosts millions of high-value production and technically superior images that have been carefully curated and can only be found at iStockphoto. At a slightly higher price point, these images have a greater sense of uniqueness and added value for any project they are used in
  • Low-cost images: Essentials collection includes millions of high-quality royalty-free images for everyday visual needs. While non-exclusive, these images are suitable for most uses in design and visuals, and they are very cheap.
  • Royalty-Free Images: yours to use forever in varied commercial and editorial work
  • User-friendly site: Library arranged by categories and highly searchable with keywords and advanced filters


Adobe Stock

Adobe Stock‘s uniqueness comes from its connection to the Creative Cloud. They pride themselves in prioritizing quality and diversity over quantity and offering visual searches.

  • Full integration with Creative Cloud: search, browse, test edit (previous to buying), license, and apply stock photographs to your designs without ever leaving your favorite app’s interface. – Additionally, it has its own stand-alone microstock site
  • Large collection: Over 60 Million royalty-free stock photos and vectors
  • Advanced search tools: powered by computer vision technology, you can do a reverse image search and even search from sketching or hand-drawing
  • Chance to sell your own designs: They have their own Contributor Site for photographers and artists, where you can submit and start selling stock photos and earn a commission for each sale


Public Domain (Copyright-Free Images)


We talked about how typical stock photos work above, but there is another path you can use when you’re looking for free images. Another way you can use stock photos is if they’re in the public domain.

Public domain images either have expired copyrights or were never restricted in the first place. (Source) Because of misinformation and manipulative marketing, there is a general confusion around photos from the public domain versus stock photos. Given the discussion above on the specific usages and rights of stock photos, clearly, stock photos and public domain images are not the same things.

There are stock images that have entered the public domain, but that does not mean that all public domain images are retired stock photos or that all stock photos are in the public domain.

In general, images in the public domain are available to be used for any purpose by anyone. However, there are significant complications to that statement that need to be considered. Public domain images may be generally safe to use, but there’s still a chance that you could get in trouble for copyright infringement. Public domain images do not require a model release, so it’s riskier to use them. In most cases, the creator or photographer is the one who sets the restrictions and rules, not the subject. So if a photographer took a picture of a celebrity and the celebrity didn’t like it, they could sue the creator if they tried to sell or distribute it. Then anyone who used that photo could be in legal trouble! (Source)

Essentially, what’s shown in the photo matters! If there is a person in it (especially someone who is recognizable and easy to identify), you need to get their consent before using their image commercially. If there is a landmark or building that is privately owned, you need to get the owner’s consent before using the image commercially. You should also be aware of any trademarked items that appear in the photo.

Another important consideration to make with public domain images is whether the photo was uploaded by the photographer or was “stolen.” As stated above, the photographer is the one who gives the rights, so you need to make sure that the image isn’t being falsely given away. It’s easy for unscrupulous people to download images and re-upload them as their own work. You cannot guarantee that an image is safe to use unless you go right to the source.

In conclusion, you need to be very careful with public domain images and understand all of the implications of using specific photos from the public domain. It is risky but can also be very rewarding when used legally.

Remember, whether obtaining stock photos or public domain images, you do not receive ownership of those images.

No matter how you are getting the photos for your website, you must be aware of the licensing and usage rights of the photos you are using. Now it is easier than ever to find yourself unintentionally committing copyright infringement. The best way to stay out of court is to be cautious and keep yourself informed! Be prepared to take down any images that violate the rules as well.