Can Royalty-Free Images Be Copyrighted?

Copyright is a law that protects authors and creators of works, such as photos. It’s meant to encourage creativity and to ensure that people don’t take advantage of the work of others without permission.

Most of the images you find online aren’t ‘copyright free’ — they need to be used with a license or permission from the owner. If you don’t have a license or permission, it’s illegal to use the image.

Copyright protection

Copyright is a legal protection that enables artists to retain ownership of their original works and ensure that others cannot copy them without permission. This law was established to promote creativity and the development of new ideas.

To qualify for copyright, a work must meet two key criteria: fixation and authorship. The first is whether the work has been created by an individual; the second is the fact that it was fixed in a tangible medium (like a painting).

In the United States, copyrights last for 50 or 70 years, depending on the country. They can also be renewed indefinitely after a certain period of time.

There are several factors to consider when deciding on the best copyright protection for your works, such as whether the work is protected by trademark law or other forms of legal protection. Additionally, you may need to consult with a lawyer before registering your work with the copyright office.

If your work is copyrighted, you can send a copyright notice when someone uses it and file a lawsuit to recover monetary damages from infringements. In the case of infringements, you are typically entitled to statutory damages that vary by jurisdiction.

However, even if you have registered your work, you are still subject to a number of restrictions and limitations. These include the ‘fair use’ doctrine, which is a set of principles that allows certain uses of copyrighted material.

Generally, the Fair Use doctrine applies when you are using copyrighted materials for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research. You can learn more about the fair use doctrine here.

Many people wonder whether they can use royalty-free images. The answer is yes, but you will need to make sure that the image you are using is under a Creative Commons license. You will also need to ensure that you properly attribute the image and that it is not used for commercial gain. This can be a challenging task, especially when combining multiple images together.


Royalty-free (RF) images are a type of stock photo license that allows a buyer to use an image as many times as they like, for an unlimited period of time. These licenses are most commonly associated with subscription-based stock photography websites. However, they can also be purchased from rights-managed stock agencies and other companies that sell licensed images.

These types of licenses are typically less expensive than Rights Managed (RM) licences and may save a buyer time and money. They can also be beneficial for photographers, who have to negotiate a license each time they sell an image. RM licenses also offer buyers more control over how the image is used and how much they will pay, but they can also be costly for the photographer.

Another characteristic of RF images is that they can be downloaded, re-used and distributed, even by multiple people. In addition, RF images don’t require attribution. This makes them perfect for use in presentations, social media posts and other marketing campaigns.

Most stock photo agencies offer RF licenses, but some are more restrictive than others. These restrictions are often found in the licensing agreements for each image, and are important to understand before making a purchase.

The most common RF restrictions are non-exclusive and non-transferable. This means that a buyer is not allowed to share or resell their RF image, nor can they gift it to another person. This also applies to any other type of stock photo license, including Rights-Managed and Editorial use.

In fact, if you find a buyer who is infringing on your RF image licence, you can pursue them for additional costs as a breach of the licence terms. This is an area where you should always seek legal advice before making a decision, as flagrant breaches can be very costly.

Alternatively, you can contact the agency that sold you the RF image to seek a refund or further legal advice. You can also ask for a copy of the licence agreement, and if this is not available, make sure to take screenshots of the website where the infringing image is used.


Permissions are the legal terms and conditions for how and when an image can be used. They can range from simple permissions to complex licensing agreements, so it’s important to understand them and be aware of their implications.

Some of the most common permissions are attribution, derivative works, and commercial use. All of these terms should be carefully considered before you decide to use a royalty-free image, as they can significantly affect your business’s bottom line and brand reputation.

Ideally, you should seek permission from any recognizable people or places in an image before using it for a commercial purpose, especially if the image includes private property, restricted access areas, or ticketed entry locations. These kinds of photos are also often subject to release contracts, so make sure you get a contract before putting them on your site or in your marketing materials.

If you’re planning to create a blog post or other online content, eye-catching imagery can really help you stand out. It can make your site more readable and actionable, and it will help keep visitors engaged.

Many stock photo websites offer a wide selection of royalty-free images for you to use however you wish. Royalty-free licenses are very affordable and usually provide you with a battery of rights to use the image for an unlimited number of projects.

One of the main benefits of a royalty-free license is that it doesn’t require attribution and you can resize, crop, or alter them as you wish. RF licenses are particularly useful for creating images that are unique and don’t appear to be “stock photos.”

Some royalty-free image sites have restrictions on their products, so it’s always best to check the license agreement before you buy an image from them. A simple Google search can reveal what kind of license is being offered and whether it allows you to use the image for commercial purposes.

Most of the time, copyrighted material is available under a Creative Commons license. CC licenses are easy to understand, but they can vary greatly in terms of what they allow and how long you can use them for. Some CC licenses prohibit commercial uses entirely, while others don’t require attribution but do require you to credit the original creator.


Royalty-free images are a great option for businesses looking to create high-impact projects with minimal overhead. They can be used in social media ads, sales brochures, in-store displays, and corporate presentations. They are also a great way to get people to share your brand on Facebook and Instagram, helping you gain exposure.

However, royalty-free images come with restrictions that may limit your options. This is why it is important to understand how they relate to copyright law and Fair Use, as well as to ensure you are only using them legally.

Restrictions on royalty-free images are typically based on the type of license you purchase. There are two types of licenses: Royalty-Free (RF) and Rights-Managed (RM).

RF image licenses allow you to use the photo as many times as you want without having to pay again. There are some limitations to these licenses, but they’re usually reasonable and are worth considering if you’re looking for a low-cost way to boost your business.

The most common limitation on RF licenses is that they’re non-transferable, meaning you can’t gift or resell the photo. If you’re trying to sell the photo to another company, you should contact the agency that sold it to you for an alternative license that permits this kind of use.

Restrictions can also include things like pornographic or adult-related content, concepts on sexuality, gender, health, politics, and any other sensitive topics. Some royalty-free sites, including iStock, don’t allow these kinds of uses.

If you’re creating a logo for your business, you should also be aware of these restrictions. Your logo should be unique, and using a royalty-free image in your design could make it look like you copied it from someone else.

It’s also a good idea to have a release signed for any recognizable people or locations in the image. This is especially true for pictures of private property, restricted access areas, and ticketed entry points.

If you are unsure whether your use of a stock photo is legal or ethical, consult a lawyer before making any decisions. The law is complex, but understanding it can help you avoid hefty fines or a lawsuit.

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