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Image Licensing 101: Why Stock Licensing Matters

Image Licensing 101: Why Stock Licensing Matters

It’s critical for all brands and creators to get their image licensing just right. Here’s a guide to using copyrighted images legally for any project.

Every creative work is subject to copyright law. Copyright protects against unauthorized uses, and there are no—or very few—contemporary copyright-free images available anywhere.

That means any creative work—such as photos on Instagram, website designs, illustrations, drawings—can all be protected by copyright.

Fair use is one of the very few instances in which copyrighted images can be used without permission. It is a limited exception that permits certain use of copyrighted images, such as allowing people to comment upon, criticize, or parody a copyrighted work.

But, in the vast majority of cases, a license is needed to protect both the creator and the licensee. Licensing not only ensures that the purchaser doesn’t get sued for copyright infringement, but it also compensates contributors who created the piece of content. 

“Copyright grants creators the exclusive ability to determine how to license rights to copy, distribute, publicly perform, and create derivative works from their original creative works,” says Andrew Raff, Assistant General Counsel of Privacy & Security for Shutterstock. “Using a copyrighted work without a license from the copyright owner infringes on these rights.”

From assets within our content library to AI-generated content, Shutterstock compensates our creative community of artists in order to provide these high-quality assets to our customers.

When you license a piece of content from Shutterstock, you are granted the right to use it for specific purposes based on the image license you choose.

Abstract balancing construction of sliced cucumber and tomatoes
License this image via Victoriia Ol.

What Are the Differences Between Image Licenses?

With a few options for image licensing, how do you know which is the right image license type for your project?

You may ask, “What are the two different stock image licenses Shutterstock offers?” The most common options are Standard and Enhanced, though we also offer Enterprise and Editorial licensing.

Read on to learn how they break down.

Standard Image License

A Standard image license covers costs for many small businesses. This is the lowest cost, highest value license.

A Standard license allows most typical marketing uses, such as featuring an image on websites, apps, print materials of up to 500,000 copies, and small film and multimedia productions with budgets less than $10,000.

Enhanced Image License

An Enhanced license expands on the Standard license. It allows printing an image across any quantity without limits. Film and multimedia presentations also don’t have budget limitations when Enhanced licenses are purchased.

Additionally, Enhanced image licenses can be used in products made for sale—such as merchandise, product packaging, as well as digital templates.

The primary limitations to the Enhanced license relate to sensitive use and third-party rights. This means that Enhanced licenses cannot generally be used in pharmaceutical and political verticals, as well as other highly sensitive industries.

Additionally, third parties cannot license and transfer images, meaning that agencies cannot license images under an Enhanced license, then transfer rights to their clients.

That’s where Enterprise licenses come in.

Explore the differences between both license types below:

Standard Image LicenseEnhanced Image License
Designed to work for most creative and usage needsDesigned to cover standard license plus more
Unlimited web distributionUnlimited web distribution
Print runs up to 500,000 copiesUnlimited print copes
OOH advertising up to 500,000 impressionsUnlimited OOH advertising impressions
Restrictions apply in merchandising and packagingAllowed in merchandising and packaging
Restrictions apply for use in web templates, print templates, and commercial spaces, and legal indemnification up to $10,000.Allowed in web templates, video production of any budget, decoration in personal and commercial spaces, and legal indemnification up to $250,000. 

For complete details on our licenses and what they cover, please see our Terms of Service

For more legal protection and transferable rights, talk to us about Enterprise

Enterprise Licenses

In addition to corporations and larger businesses, political organizations, pharmaceutical companies, and many agencies often benefit from Enterprise licenses. These typically expand on the image rights from Standard and Enhanced licenses.

Enterprise licenses fall primarily into two categories: Premier and Media.

Premier licenses, the top tier, offer the most flexibility. In addition to unlimited use in media, companies with premier licenses can choose uncapped indemnification, white-glove services like rapid response and customized invoicing, and third-party transfer rights.

Media licenses are also available to Enterprise clients for a lower cost than Premier, with the caveat that there are no merchandising rights.

Editorial Licenses

The last major category of Shutterstock image licenses is Editorial. There are significant differences between royalty-free creative and Editorial-exclusive licenses.

Where a royalty-free license allows just about any marketing or commercial use depending on the license, Editorial licenses have much stricter photo use rights. They can only be used in editorial content, which might include news and academia.

Editorial images may depict trademarks and be subject to third-party privacy or publicity concerns. This means it’s usually not possible to use those images in marketing materials or for commercial gain.

Some examples of Editorial image uses include red-carpet events, galas, and other high-profile newsworthy events

For more information on all our licenses, visit our Support Center.

Minimalist photo of a person sprinkling peas on a breakfast plate full of food
License this image via Master1305.

One of the biggest—and most important—question Shutterstock’s team fields is, “Can I use licensable images for free?”

Using licensable images illegally can open you up to significant legal concerns, because just about every modern image is subject to copyright law. Free licenses generally do not offer the same guarantees and protections as Shutterstock’s paid licenses.

You should have permission (in writing) for every image you use. This permission needs to specify conditions for use. The consequences of failing to do so can be significant, so following copyright rules for using images legally is a must.

Female hand grabbing crispy croissant on plaid tablecloth isolated on bright blue background
License this image via Master1305.

What Are the Consequences of Using Free Stock Illegally?

As mentioned above, because copyright grants rights, it also allows people to enforce those rights. Copyright infringement is a punishable civil offense that allows people to recover damages for inappropriately used work.

Copyright infringement carries significant risk, as statutory damages for willful copyright infringement can be as high as $150,000 per work. In addition to significant financial impact, there’s the potential for massive damage to your reputation.

Legal troubles aren’t the high-profile coverage any business seeks.

Suffice to say, the legal penalties for improper use of images, videos, or music simply aren’t worth a misstep.

Table setting with pink plate full of flowers and egg with golden spoon and knife on pink background
License this image via Gligoric.

What About Using Free Stock Images?

While there are images on “free” sites, the licenses they fall under may not have the same level of quality or clarity as Shutterstock.

Some “free” licenses, like the Creative Commons license, may have strict requirements for use, especially when compared to our clear-cut straightforward usage guides.

What’s more, the different free image license types may forbid modifying the image, which is critical for many—if not most—of our clients.

Easter egg themed composition with decorated eggs next to a bouquet of daffodils
License this image via marilyn barbone.

How Does Shutterstock Protect Contributors and Customers?

The vast majority of Shutterstock’s 600,000+ images come from individual contributors, who we carefully vet to ensure their images meet our high standards for quality and licensing.

With policies in place to protect customers and contributors, both groups trust us to offer high-quality images and clear-cut licensing guides that protect and help grow their bottom lines. 

Because of the quality of Shutterstock’s contributor community, Shutterstock is able to stand behind the integrity of their submissions and provides indemnification for customers.

Photo of a head of lettuce wearing sunglasses
License this image via LoulouVonGlup.

How to License an Image on Shutterstock

Customers choose a credit-based pricing plan. This allows them to download a specific quantity of images, audio tracks, or videos, based on how they want to use them.

In a nutshell, if you’re wondering how to license an image, it’s as simple as choosing a plan, searching for an image, and using your credits to buy it based on the license you need.

For more information, check out this post:

Properly Licensed Images Are Vital

There are so many online resources for creative content today. Now, more than ever, brands need higher quality content and protections, in order to stand out.

Because emerging technology makes it easier to track improper content use, it’s also easier than ever for creators to identify and get legal protections for infringed work. 

Approaching stock content in the right way is vital. Doing the right thing should be reason enough to follow copyright laws, and the potential penalties make proper image licensing even more critical.

Thankfully, Shutterstock’s licensing makes it easy for our customers to find their best content, with the licensing plans that protect them and support creators. 

Choose the perfect plan to meet your unique creative needs:

Haven’t decided yet? Test-drive with a free trial:

Before you go! Check out Shutterstock Flex, our FLEXible licensing plan. With Shutterstock Flex, you’ll have all-in-one access to our massive library, plus the flexibility you need to select the perfect mix of assets every time.

License this cover image via Pla2na.

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