If your day is anything like mine, you’re constantly surrounded by images. Whether it’s billboards and ads on buses on my drive in to work, digital ads on my phone, articles in magazines or the packaging on just about anything I buy, I’m inundated with imagery. As a principal for a B2B marketing agency, I see and interact with visual stimuli constantly; our clients’ campaigns aren’t complete without visual components. And in our content marketing world, their publishing efforts are almost always supported by visual elements that make it easy for their customers to remember messages and engage with their content.

One of the challenges both we and our clients face is image availability. Specifically, it can be impractical to maintain an inventory of original images for exclusive use. Enter royalty-free stock photography. “Royalty-free stock photography” is defined as a type of license which grants a buyer certain rights to an image after paying a flat, one-time fee (Stock Photo Guides). Whether you’re a member of an in-house marketing group or work with an agency’s creative team, stock photography can be the source of a visual which gets your creative juices flowing or makes an idea come to life. You’ve probably already searched for and purchased stock photography to support your work. But have you carefully considered how to manage these images?

Stock photography usage rights are consistently misunderstood. This blog post seeks to clarify these rights — so you don’t find yourself on the wrong end of a costly violation. Specifically, I want to address who owns the usage rights in the agency-client relationship, but only pertaining to royalty-free images; rights-managed images is another topic for a future blog.

Who owns royalty-free stock photography?

Well, it depends.

First and foremost, ownership is retained by the photographer. Whether you work for an agency or a marketer, when your company purchases a royalty-free stock image, that company becomes the licensee for the image (not the owner). As the licensee, you can use or manipulate that image as you wish. If an agency buys an image for a client’s project, the agency can use it on their customer’s behalf. Use of the image is typically unrestricted, i.e., it can be used in multiple deliverables for the client. And in terms of cost, an image is usually priced based on its file size or resolution.

Quite often, agencies (and sometimes marketers) have bulk stock image agreements with one or more stock photo houses they use regularly (e.g., Getty ImagesShutterstock). These purchase agreements allow agencies to buy images at a predetermined, negotiated rate based on their anticipated download volume. With these agreements, images must be licensed to the purchaser, i.e., the signer of the agreement.

When the agency purchases an image, the client who receives a manipulated image as part of a project does not have rights to the original stock photo. In this circumstance, the client can only use the images purchased by the agency in the piece of original work developed by the agency. Additionally, the stock photography files cannot reside on client servers in any form other than in the work created by the agency or licensee. If the client wishes to use the image for a different purpose, the agency (as licensee of that image) must create new or revised work on their behalf.

What if my client wants rights to an image?

If a client requests that a stock image license be assigned to them, the agency cannot use their bulk purchase agreement. The agency would purchase the image for, and license it to, the client. The cost of the image in this scenario is typically considerably more expensive than the agency’s negotiated rate. Since the image license has been assigned to the client, the client now owns the usage rights for the image. The agency can only use the image as directed by the client, and the image must be returned to the client when the project is completed. That means the image file(s) cannot be left on the agency servers in any form other than in the final work created by the agency! When the image is licensed to your client, the image can be used by the client as desired but can only be used by their agency as specifically directed by the client.

Can an agency and a client share rights to an image?

No. If an agency and client both need unrestricted access to the same royalty-free image, per most bulk purchase agreements, they will each need to purchase the image. However, when both parties purchase a royalty-free image, they each can conveniently retain the image files on their respective servers for inclusion in future work.

Are royalty-free images right for your campaign?

Royalty-free images are an easy and generally cost-effective way to add eye-catching, memorable imagery to messages. Keep in mind that these images are readily available to everyone — including your competitors — so if you’re looking for exclusivity, they may not be the answer.

If you decide that royalty-free images could be the key to enhancing your message, remember to thoroughly read the licensing agreement provided by the stock photo house to avoid potential copyright infringements. Breaking copyright law can have serious consequences, including fines or even jail time (Department of Justice).

Hopefully, this blog gives you some insights into the royalty-free image space. But if you have further questions, give me a call, consult your legal team, or reach out to your stock house directly.