Are Royalty-Free Photos Free To Use?
Imagine receiving a surprise email from a lawyer informing you that you’re being served with a several-thousand-dollar lawsuit for a "royalty-free" photo you downloaded online.
More and more small business owners like you are being faced with this scary situation in the online business world.
The reality is, if you’ve ever downloaded and used an image online without knowing the original photo source or usage terms, this could easily happen to you.
Be warned: "Royalty-free" does NOT mean free to use.
In this article, I'm going to walk you through the important things you need to know about using photos *safely* and legally for your online business.
I'll also break down what the confusing term "royalty-free" actually means - in simple terms.
And I'll tell you where you can find the best royalty-free stock photos that are safe to use for your business.
Please note: I am not a lawyer. None of this is technically legal advice.
The trouble commonly happens when you do a google search or find a pretty photo you like on someone else’s website or blog and right click to download, then use that photo on your own website, blog or other marketing sources.
Or, when you do a quick Google search, mistakenly thinking the term "royalty-free" means free to use.
Now, you might be thinking, “But Briena, everyone just downloads photos to use online. It happens all the time. I’ve been doing it for years and nothing’s happened.”
The truth is that downloading and using imagery without permission is stealing.
And although I know you would never intentionally steal, even doing so "innocently" can get you into a real pickle.
Here’s something most business owners don’t realize… illegal image usage has become so rampant that there are now attorneys making a living by scouting the internet for illegally used photos and encouraging photographers to press charges. And it’s not just big companies getting dinged. It’s the small people too. In fact, chances are very probable that you know someone with a small business who’s been served for photo usage infringement.
"I've heard of other acupuncturists getting popped by Getty Images for illegal use of photos. It's opened my eyes to a very real situation and reminds me that it could happen to anyone, including me. As a solopreneur doing all my own marketing and branding, the images I use for my website and social media are very important to me. I've found it can be difficult to find quality Stock images that haven't been overused by everyone else in my profession or images that don't have huge fees attached."
- Allison Blaisdell Chalifoux, acupuncturist
How at-risk are you, really?
If you think you’re not at risk, let me ask you this… do you know the original source for every photo you’re using on your website, on social media, in your blog posts and promo videos? What about the photos which have been “gifted” to you? And the images used in designs you’ve hired out on Fiverr? More importantly, are you positive you have the legal right to use them and how?
If your answer is “Um, I’m not sure *headscratch* - I think so?”… I’d encourage you to think twice before posting those photos in representation of your business.
In case you didn’t know, not all images you find on the internet are free to use - even if you found them in a search on google for “free photos” - in fact, most aren’t.
What's The Cost For Photo Infringement?
So, what’s the cost of using a photo illegally? You might want to sit down for this. You can get sued for up to $8,000 per illegally used image. Yep, you heard that right.
Well, what if the photos were gifted to you by someone else, or if the photo was used in a design you hired out by a professional designer?
The answer: You’re still liable. Yep. I know. It’s true, and it sucks.
"Briena THANK YOU so much for bringing the 'royalty-free' confusion to light. At a recent event I ran into a woman who was frantic she has been served with a several thousand $$ suit for improper use of photos from a web/print project she bought through Fiverr. After hiring a lawyer and paying what she has to it is going to be an expensive lesson- what a mess. It was a REAL eye-opener for me, I had no idea and felt very naive myself. ... Please spread the word!! I spoke with my attorney about this and he basically confirmed what you said. This is the 'new form of ambulance chasing' there are attorneys that make a living in front of a computer looking for such infringements and infractions."
- Felicia Mill
And before you say, “well, I give photo credit and would just take it down if someone has a problem with it”, let me tell you - it doesn’t matter.
In fact, there’s no mercy, even if you:
- Didn’t realize you were using the image illegally
- Thought you were allowed to use it
- Offer to pay the regular usage cost
- Found the photo on someone else’s website
- Were “gifted” the photo as a bonus with something you purchased or signed up for
- Got the image from your friend/colleague who purchased the photo
- Got the photo as part of a design you commissioned on Fiverr or elsewhere
- Received the photo as “filler” a image in your website template or other design and didn’t realize you needed to purchase them
- Remove it from your site immediately
- Give proper photo credit and/or link back to where you found it
- Downloaded it because it came up in a google search for “free photos”
- Downloaded it because it said “royalty free”
Even if you plead to any of the above, you’re still legally liable and there’s no way around it.
Mostly, these usage terms are in place to help compensate photographers when big corporations profit from their work. But in all fairness, all businesses - big and small - use imagery to brand and market their business and bring in profit. So even if you created a video that didn’t directly sell anything, but still used pretty photos that were “illegally” downloaded - it’s still a form of promotion, it’s still illegal, and it’s still stealing.
It’s important to give photographers love and respect. Photography is a skill that takes years to learn and perfect and working as a professional photographer is extremely expensive in both time and money (believe me, my camera gear alone was a $20,000 investment). It’s important to compensate photographers for helping you to promote and market your business in a professional way. After all, photography is a profession just like health coaching, acupuncture, massage and any other. It’s important we respect and support each other, and doing so helps us to be able to continue to do so in the future.
Why Do I Need To Pay For Photo Usage?
It can get confusing when dealing with "extended usage terms". Varying licensing fees and usage terms are typically in place to help compensate photographers when companies profit from their work. In all fairness, however, all businesses - big and small - use imagery to brand and market their business, attract clients, and help bring in profit. So even if you created a video that didn’t directly sell anything, but still used pretty photos that were “illegally” downloaded - it’s still a form of promotion, it’s still illegal, and it’s still stealing.
It’s important to give photographers love and respect. Photography is a profession and a skill that takes years to learn and perfect and working as a professional photographer is extremely expensive in both time and money (believe me, my camera gear alone was a $20,000 investment). It’s important to compensate photographers for helping you to promote and market your business in a professional way. After all, photography is a profession just like health coaching, acupuncture, massage and any other. It’s important we respect and support each other, and doing so helps us to be able to continue to do so in the future.
That said, there are things you can be aware of and do in order to protect yourself from photo infringements.
What Is Royalty-Free?
So, what does "royalty-free" actually mean?
There’s a popular misperception that “royalty free” means you can download and use an image however you want - for free. Let me set the record straight right here and now, because this is a very dangerous misperception: “Royalty free” does NOT mean free-to-use. Read that last line one more time, because it’s super important to know and understand.
Here’s what royalty-free typically does mean:
- Royalty free typically means you don’t have to include “proper photo credit”. “Proper photo credit” can vary, but typically includes either a photographer mention or a link back to the photographer’s website.
- Royalty free also commonly means that the photo, after legally obtained, can be used multiple times without paying additional fees per each use or per volume.Here’s what you can do to protect yourself: Never download photos you find in a google search for “free photos” or “royalty free photos”. If you find a photo you want to use, be sure to click back to the original source and scout out whether the photo is actually from a paid site.
3 Must-Know Tips To Protect Yourself From Photo Lawsuits
1. Understand that “royalty-free” does not mean free-to-use.
Don't be fooled. Read above for what royalty-free actually means and save this article to refer back to in the future for a refresher.
2. When in doubt, ask for the original photo source + usage permission
If you’ve hired out a design or have been gifted a set of free photos, it’s good practice to ask the designer or gifter for the original photo source and for proof of permission. They should be able to easily supply this info. If they can supply a source name, but not proof of usage permission, you can reach out to the photo source for confirmation. If the designer/gifter can’t supply any information, assume it’s not safe to use the imagery.
3. Choose 1-2 go-to stock photo sources and get cozy with their usage terms
It’s important to know that every photographer and photo site is different and has unique licensing and usage terms for their imagery. Many big stock photo sites even have unique licensing and usage terms per photo. This makes things SUPER confusing, especially when downloading multiple photos from multiple different sites which all have different usage terms. How can you remember which photo came from where and what the specific usage allows?
I’m a photographer, and even I get confused by this! When I was researching stock photo sites at the dream phase of starting my own stock photo source, the different usage terms sent me in a head-spin. I had a wave of relief when I realized - I didn’t have to set up my terms in the tricky way common to so many other stock photo sites. I could make my own rules and make my usage terms clear, simple, and across the board. And so that’s what I did when I launched Wellness Stock Shop. I wanted easy-to-understand usage terms that make sense to people who aren’t photographers or lawyers.
But not every photo site is the same and this is one reason why I recommend choosing just 1-2 go-to photo sources for your wellness business, getting to know the usage terms, and sticking to those so things don’t get so messy. Another smart thing to do is to create stock photo folders with titles that indicate the photo usage terms of the images within and make it a strict habit to organize photos by licensing terms.
“I worked for a super small local marketing team and one of the girls started grabbing images from Google to use with our client's blog posts. The client was contacted by Getty Images with a Cease & Desist and a $6000 fine.
Photo rights are no joke!”
- Cami Williams, Owner/Virtual Assistant at VAology