Does Royalty-Free Mean the Content is Free?

If you have been looking for stock images, vectors, and videos in your preferred stock library, you may have come across the term "royalty-free". Let’s talk about what it really means. First of all, “royalty-free” doesn't mean that the content is free of charge. You still need to pay a fee for it. Once you've purchased the usage rights, you won't have to pay any royalties every time you use it.

What are royalties? Royalties are fees that you need to pay to the creator or author of a work every time you use or sell it. If you use a copyrighted image for your website or ad campaign, you need to pay a fee to the creator. And if you don't, it's actually illegal and can lead to serious consequences like lawsuits and fines.

Royalty-free libraries like Shutterstock or 123RF have made it easy for creators to use content legally. All stock images and videos are usually royalty-free on such websites. In other words, these websites already compensate the creators fairly, and you won't have to worry about paying any royalties. You just need to pay for the usage rights once, and you can use the content multiple times without any time limits.

The low cost is one of the benefits of using royalty-free images. You can use the images for multiple purposes, like on your website, business cards, print materials, and online banner ads (depending on what your license covers). Stock libraries usually provide indemnification for licensed content, which means that you're protected from any legal issues that may arise from using the content.

What do you pay for the stock library? The fee you pay covers the usage rights for a single project (one off purchases) or for ongoing needs (monthly subscriptions). The subscription plans usually come with a specific number of images or videos. If you work for a large agency or company, you may opt for larger plans for teams and corporations that provide access and collaboration tools for multiple users.

Similar to stock images, these large stock libraries offer royalty-free footage and music. Talk a look at the best royalty-free unlimited footage subscriptions here and the best royalty-free music sites here.

There are a couple of notable exceptions when it comes to “royalty-free” content.

From time to time, you may see mentions of “Editorial Use Only” next to stock images or videos. This will mean that the piece has not been cleared for commercial use. This means that such content can only be used in news or journalistic contexts. So, if you're using content for a commercial project, make sure to check that it's labeled for commercial use.

Stock websites usually have 2 types of licenses: standard royalty-free and extended license (also called enhanced). The former allows you to use the content in multiple projects, there are some limitations to how many times you can reproduce the content. If you need to use the content in a large print run, like for a billboard or a product packaging, you'll need an extended license. This latter comes with a higher licensing fee.

Rarely if at all, you will need a custom license. This happens when you need content for a unique project that doesn't fit within the standard licensing options. In this case you will have to contact your stock library and work with their licensing team. The team will create a custom license that fits your specific needs, whether it's for a film, TV show, or advertising campaign. Custom licenses can be more expensive, but they provide the flexibility to use the content in a way that meets your creative vision.

Using royalty-free content is a great way to ensure that you're using content legally and that the creators are getting fair compensation.