RF Limitations

Posted on 7/20/2016 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (1)

Many RM photographers are opposed to Royalty Free because they believe that for a single low fee they would be giving away all future rights to use their images. That’s not quite true.

Shutterstock explains its Standard License this way. “When licensing royalty free images, the buyer is granted (almost) unlimited rights to the image.” That “almost” refers to some pretty big restrictions. Shutterstock goes on to say, “You, the buyer, can use an RF image in virtually any medium or application, for as long as you like (“in perpetuity”) in as many projects as you need – and as long as you stay within the licensing terms of the agreement.”

Let’s look at some of those “licensing terms” and consider what kind of “limitations” they put on use. (The limitations vary depending on the RF seller, but every seller includes some of these limitations.)

Print Run

The “Standard License” of most RF sellers limits the number of printed copies in which the image can be used to 500,000. If the customer wants to print more, then they must purchase an additional “Extended License.” In Shutterstock’s case this additional charge is roughly $100. (It varies depending on the number of extended licenses purchased.)

With Stocky the print run limitation on their RF license is 250,000 copies, and the additional fee the buyer needs to pay to print more than 250,000 is $300. If a Stocksy customer needs the largest file size available, the base fee is $125. Thus, when a customer wants to print more than 250,000 copies using the largest file size, the total cost would be $425.

RM sellers should consider the percentage of their images currently licensed for fees less than $425.  
Suppose a customer purchases an image from a supplier with a Standard License limitation of 500,000. The customer’s initial project has a print run of 400,000. Later, that customer want to use the same image in a different project and print 300,000 copies of the new project.

Does the customer have to purchase an “Extended License,” or are both uses covered under the Standard License that allows “unlimited re-use” of any image purchased? Often the answer to this question is not clearly explained in the Standard License agreement. My belief is that the 500,000 is the total count of all uses of the image and in the above case the customer would need to purchase an Extended License.

Unlimited Time

Standard RF licenses allow use of an image “worldwide, in all media, for unlimited time.” How much does this give away, really? Today, how often are RM customers paying more to use an image in multiple countries, or to print in multiple publications? This used to happen quite often, but I think that today most RM sellers are giving away all that extra use for the basic low price.

It is certainly a good sales pitch because it makes it sound like the customer is getting a lot, but does it really have much effect on what the RM seller is able to charge?


Despite the fact that the RF buyer has the right to personally make “multiple use of the image, worldwide, in all media, for unlimited time” the buyer does not have the right to give that image to anyone else to use.

Shutterstock says, “Only one user is permitted to access the account and manipulate the content licensed from the account. If more than one person downloads images from Shutterstock using that single seat account, the Licensee is in breach of the license.”

Suppose a company has 10 art directors working on projects and often sharing content with one another. Each art director has its own account and own access code. It is illegal for them to share content unless they have a mulit-seat license. Shutterstock and Stocksy charge an additional $100 per-image for any image that will be used by “more than one individual within your organization.”

Some large organizations with offices around the world like to select a group of images that will be representative of their brand and make these images available for use by all the art directors in on all their local offices, worldwide. Seldom, will the headquarters track each one of these local uses. In such a case the headquarters would negotiate a seat-license, based on the number of art directors who potentially have access to use the image.


Shutterstock’s Standard License is a single-seat and non-transerable.

Shutterstock offers a Premier license that is negotiated separately. Shutterstock Premier “grants access for unlimited number of users – as well as the right to assign content to one client, and for one time only -- to a client, provided the client agrees (in writing) to use such content in accordance with the license – and further provided that the Licensee notifies Shutterstock in writing of any such assignment.”

Merchandise For Sale

If the image is to be used in any type of “Products for Resale” there is an additional fee over and above the standard license fee. Such uses include: labels or packaging for any type of commercial product, or other types of commercial products such as greeting cards, t-shirts, mugs, posters, wallpapers, stickers, templates, screensavers, etc.
Shutterstock charges an additional $100 for such uses. Stocksy charges an additional $500.

In addition, the use of images in logos, trademarks, or similar applications is generally not allowed unless a separate fee is negotiated.

Sensitive Subjects

There are certain sensitive subjects where use of a RF image is not allowed, or where at the very least a separate agreement must be negotiated. Shutterstock’s list includes:
  • Using any Visual Content in a pornographic, defamatory, or deceptive context, or in a manner that could be considered libelous, obscene, or illegal.
  • Portraying any person depicted in Visual Content in connection with a sensitive use, such as depicting such person: in any manner in connection with pornography, "adult videos", adult entertainment venues, escort services, dating services, or tobacco products; as endorsing a political party, candidate, elected official, or opinion; as suffering from, or medicating for, a physical or mental ailment; or engaging in immoral or criminal activities.

Unlimited Re-use

RM sellers worried about “unlimited re-use” should ask themselves how many times one of their customers has purchased the same image twice. I believe customers rarely use the same image in multiple projects. Customers naturally want to use something new and different in each new project. If this is the case, then “unlimited re-use” isn’t really giving much at all away.

In order to justify continued production, most image creators need to get multiple uses of at least some of their images – particularly considering today’s low prices for most individual sales. Seldom will a single one-time fee for the use of an image cover the cost of production.

But, virtually all multiple uses of a given image are the result of different customers purchasing the same image, not one customer paying multiple times to use the same image. Many of the more popular RF images are purchased by more than 100 customers. How many RM sellers can claim that they have images that have been purchased by even 10 different customers?

Unlimited Electronic Impressions

Unlimited electronic impressions (web, eBook, etc.) is standard in RF licenses and this is worldwide, not limited by country or time.

The question for the RM seller is how can you put any type of limitation on this? Anything that is on the Internet is available worldwide, even if it is on the site of a local pizza restaurant trying to promote its own business. In theory, it would be possible to require that the customer to take the image off the Internet after a certain period of time, but managing that would be a tremendous burden on the customer. Any customer with an ounce of sense would simply look for an RF image that doesn’t have such restrictions.


RF sellers have a great sales pitch when they say “You can use our RF images in virtually any medium or application, in perpetuity, in as many projects as you need.” It sounds simple and easy. And it is compared to RM licensing. But, if the customer really honors all the RF license limitations is RF necessarily that bad of a deal for the seller. This is particularly true when you realize that over 99% of all the images licensed, worldwide, use some type of RF license while less than 1% use an RM license.

Some RM sellers ask, “How do you enforce the RF license restrictions?” My answer is, “How well have you been doing enforcing your RM restrictions? And if you have had some success how much money went into your pocket after you paid off the lawyers?”

A lot of the enforcement in either case (particularly when large organization that spend the most money are involved) comes from honest people who want to obey the rules and avoid future legal action.

Copyright © 2016 Jim Pickerell. The above article may not be copied, reproduced, excerpted or distributed in any manner without written permission from the author. All requests should be submitted to Selling Stock at 10319 Westlake Drive, Suite 162, Bethesda, MD 20817, phone 301-461-7627, e-mail: wvz@fpcubgbf.pbz

Jim Pickerell is founder of www.selling-stock.com, an online newsletter that publishes daily. He is also available for personal telephone consultations on pricing and other matters related to stock photography. He occasionally acts as an expert witness on matters related to stock photography. For his current curriculum vitae go to: http://www.jimpickerell.com/Curriculum-Vitae.aspx.  


  • Jim Lee Olive Posted Jul 24, 2016
    Very well written article. I have a better understanding of the RF license now and understand why the bulk of agencies use that model for licensing their images. I am a specialty agency focusing primarily on a specific geographic area, Houston, Texas and can command RM fees for the most part of my images, however, the agencies that I send my images to that represent me only receive images that outside that area and subject matter for use in RF.

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