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How to Legally Use Your Stock Photos Across Multiple Platforms

How to Legally Use Your Stock Photos Across Multiple Platforms

Learn the ins and outs of using stock content across multiple platforms and for multiple purposes. We interviewed one of Shutterstock’s experts in licensing legalities to learn more. 

With Shutterstock’s vast collection of stock photography, videography, illustrations, music, and more, creative possibilities are nearly endless . . . as long as you understand how and where you can use your stock content.

Luckily, stock photo licensing is more straightforward than you might imagine. 

To help empower businesses of all sizes to make the best creative decisions for their brands, we caught up with William Clark, Shutterstock’s Assistant General Counsel in Licensing. In our interview, he broke down exactly how to use stock assets safely. 

Whether you’re hosting a local bake sale or launching a large-scale branded campaign, these are the details you need to know to use stock content successfully.

You can use stock content for your commercial projects, too. You just need to purchase the right license for what you need.

Let’s dive into the basics of those licenses and more.

Infinity sign made of two combined disks composed of metal wires
License this image via vinap.

Royalty Free (RF) licenses allow you to use your stock photos across platforms, forever

Under a traditional “rights-managed” license, the stock content buyer will pay for a specific use case. 

  • For example, if you want to use an image in an ad that runs on a billboard for two months, the initial fee covers that use and that use only. 
  • But then, if the buyer decides they want to use the same image in a global web campaign that runs for a year, they need to renegotiate another fee on top of what they’ve already paid. 

Royalty free licenses are different, though. By paying a one-time fee, stock content buyers can use that same content in perpetuity, across many platforms, such as on social media, a print mailer, your website, and so on.

“Royalty free licensing is intended to capture as many customers and uses as possible,” Clark explains. “It’s sort of a one-size-fits-all approach, which emphasizes a transaction model that values simplicity and speed over haggling over every last detail to squeeze out as much of a license fee as possible.” 

A Neoclassical sculpture titled Three Graces by Antonio Canova
License this image via lorenza62.

What are the differences between licenses?

That being said, various royalty free licenses come with their specificities and limits. Those are important to know when discussing how to use stock photos legally. 

Standard Licenses 

If you opt for a Standard license on Shutterstock, you can use your stock content for web and app ads, email marketing, and social media. You can also use them in printed materials with a run of 500,000 prints or less, and film productions or commercials with a budget of $10,000 or less.

Enhanced Licenses

If your commercial has a budget of more than $10,000—or your print run includes more than 500,000 prints—an Enhanced license has you covered.

Enhanced licenses allow you to use your stock content for merchandise (for example, t-shirts and other branded products for retail use) and decoration within a commercial space. These two uses are not allowed under a Standard license. 

Premier Licenses

A Premier license unlocks even more benefits. Among other things, it allows for some “sensitive use,” a term that describes a situation where a person in a photo could be associated with a controversial or sensitive subject as a result of the context in which the image is used. 

For example, sensitive use includes the use of an image in a tobacco ad or a political endorsement. Pharmaceutical companies might also choose to pay a premium for sensitive use in order to advertise medications, in cases where the ad could lead the person in the photo to be associated with a health condition.

The use of a photo in such “sensitive” contexts is not allowed with a Standard or Enhanced license.

Importantly, a Premier license grants you access to Shutterstock’s Enterprise Platform, which allows multiple people to access the photos. It also comes with unlimited indemnification—a benefit we’ll discuss in-depth below. 

Spiral sound wave on black background
License this image via ioat.

Clark says, one thing you can’t do with even the strongest license is use a stock asset as part of a logo or trademark.

“Using a stock asset as a trademark or logo can create what is referred to as ‘secondary meaning.’ An observer should not associate that visual with a brand.” 

“This creates common law rights that are in conflict with (Shutterstock’s) rights, and those of our contributors. Trademark or logo use is only ever allowed under an ‘exclusive’ product.”

In that case, you should contact Shutterstock to discuss the possibility of an exclusive buyout of a specific image or illustration. Then, they’ll reach out to the copyright holder on your behalf. 

Abstract vector of two human heads
License this image via Zsschreiner.

Shutterstock Enterprise allows multiple people to download and use stock content

According to Clark, the most common misconception buyers have when it comes to how to use stock photos legally boils down to access. Under an individual or “single-seat” account, only one person can access stock downloads. 

“Very few larger enterprises with creative teams should have any single seat licenses,” Clark says. “The consequence of using content in breach of the contract is that you don’t get the benefit of the license itself. A breach voids the license. It’s really just wasting money.” 

The solution is simple: If you’re collaborating with a large corporate team or agency, Shutterstock’s Enterprise Platform gives you “multi-seat” access so you can share images across your organization.

It’s no surprise that leading brands and publishers like BBDO and National Geographic choose Shutterstock Enterprise to manage sophisticated image needs. 

Model Lisa Cooper with loose windblown hair style, leaning forward on a stool, and wearing a striped chiffon blouse
License this image via Arthur Elgort/Condé Nast/Shutterstock.

Editorial stock assets must be used for informational or educational purposes 

On Shutterstock, images marked “Editorial Use Only” cannot be used for commercial purposes, such as marketing or selling a product or service. These images are meant to be used for informational and educational purposes, such as a news article covering current events or public interest stories. They’re not meant to be used in ads. 

Editorial only content may: 

  • Include a recognizable person who hasn’t signed a model release. A document that would allow their likeness is required for this stock asset to be used for marketing. 
  • Include the presence of trademarked or branded designs or logos. These are off-limits without a release. 
  • Include private properties, such as residences or businesses. These also require a property release in order to be suitable for commercial use. 

If we’re exploring how to use stock photos legally, this rule comes with a potential twist for certain situations. 

“Our ‘Commercial Use’ team does support customers who have a specific commercial need to use uncleared content for commercial purposes, following legal review and approval,” Clark explains. 

“In those cases, the team will advise on what content is appropriate, the associated risk, and in many cases sell ‘Asset Assurance,’ pursuant to which Shutterstock assumes the risk of use. These are all case-by-case, and the most ‘rights managed’ of our products.” 

Three dimensional render of three metallic spinning tops balancing on top of each other
License this image via Dreava Bogdan / Westend61 on Offset.

You might have come across free stock photo websites in the past, but these websites usually pose a major legal and financial risk. Shutterstock, by contrast, offers financial protection for image buyers in the form of indemnification. 

“Shutterstock represents and warrants that all of the content on our platform has been reviewed and comports to best-in-industry quality and compliance guidelines,” Clark tells us. “This is a feature of our product. It is the most obvious and meaningful distinction between Shutterstock and any of the ‘free’ image sites that pop-up from time to time.”

Indemnification is a guarantee that Shutterstock will stand behind our content and defend our customers against any third-party claim that comes up alleging Shutterstock violated the reps and warranties that we make in our contract,” Clark explains. 

  • Under a Standard license, Shutterstock provides indemnification of up to $10,000 per image. 
  • With an Enhanced license, legal indemnification goes up to $250,000. 
  • A Premier license comes with unlimited indemnification. 

“We have skin-in-the-game for every asset we license,” Clark says, “and that is a really important hedge that ensures we always are mindful of compliance and risk in every decision we make.”

If you’re using a website that doesn’t offer the same protections, you’re essentially licensing the content at your own risk.

Let’s say, for example, that a photographer has uploaded an image for which they don’t own the copyright to one of these free sites. In that case, your company could be held responsible for damages if the actual copyright holder brings a claim against you for using that image.  

“Without naming names, I find one of the few meaningful indemnifiable settlements we have had to pay out on in our history to be really instructive,” Clark tells me. “In short summary, we ingested an asset that depicted a graphic visual of a ‘birch-tree’ forest. That asset was licensed by a ubiquitous brick and mortar retailer and used as the basis for a wallpaper they installed in many of their stores. 

“It turns out that the contributor was uploading content that wasn’t his. The actual rights-holder was a wallpaper maker, which was completely unbeknownst to our client (and, of course, to Shutterstock).” 

Shutterstock covered the damages in this case.

“In the case of the wallpaper maker, the damages were really easy to calculate,” Clark remembers. “It was a simple matter of determining the price-per-sq-ft of the wallpaper actually sold by the rights-holder, figuring out how much wallpaper had actually been printed and used by our customer, and doing a quick multiplication calculation.”

In this case and others like it, indemnification saved the client from having to deal with drawn-out legal headaches and financial trouble.

“My takeaway here is that the risk of getting burned if you use one of those free sites, rather than come to a professional, best-in-industry marketplace such as Shutterstock, is greater than you might think,” Clark explains. 

When you license stock assets, you’re free to use them in your projects—even though you don’t own the copyright to those assets. For that reason, you need to make sure you’re following the rules of your specific license.

Choosing the correct license, using a trusted marketplace, and having indemnification will protect you from legal issues. They’ll ensure even your most ambitious projects go off without a hitch.

License these images via Shutterstock.AI x2 x3.

Indemnity for AI-generated images is available

Shutterstock is the first to offer indemnity for AI images, as well. This was announced at our Generative AI Showcase in May 2023.

“Our AI indemnity is really unique in the sense that we are guaranteeing the content just like we would any other asset, provided it is submitted for review,” Clark adds. 

Black and white photo of a young girl raising her hand in a classroom
License this image via Monica Hart Images.

FAQ on Royalty-Free Content

Yes, purchasing a royalty-free license allows you to use the same image across multiple platforms, for a one-time fee. Restrictions could apply depending on the type of royalty-free license you use. 

Can you use stock assets for anything?

With the right license, many things are possible. Different licenses have different restrictions. Regardless, some things are always off-limits.

Shutterstock content can never be used together with “pornographic, defamatory, or otherwise unlawful or immoral content.” 

Is it OK to use stock content on social media?

Yes, stock assets make wonderful visuals for social media.

Is it OK to use stock assets for art?

It depends. Are you using the stock image to decorate a commercial space? Are you selling products with the image printed on them? If so, you can do that legally by purchasing an Enhanced license. 

What happens if I use stock assets without permission?

If you use stock assets without permission, you could face legal trouble and may have to pay hefty damages to the copyright holder. 

Are stock assets copyrighted?

Yes, all stock assets are protected by copyright unless that copyright has been explicitly signed away. 

Royalty-free images are not the same as copyright-free images. If you want images that are not protected by copyright, you’d have to look for images in the public domain or released under a Creative Commons Zero (CC0) license. 

Can you get sued for using stock content?

You could get sued if you use stock content in a way that violates your license agreement. You could also get sued if you use stock assets that are stolen, whether or not you yourself had knowledge that it was stolen.

For that reason, it’s important to go with a trusted platform like Shutterstock, which offers legal indemnification, every time. 

Portrait of actress Marilyn Monroe for Life magazine
License this image via Alfred Eisenstaedt/The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock.

Access the World’s Best Stock Content with a Subscription

Experience unlimited flexibility to license premium images, video, vectors, audio, and more with Shutterstock Flex. Enjoy flexible access to millions of stock assets for your projects. Sign up for a free trial today. 

If you are an Enterprise customer, you can access our Enterprise Flex subscription to meet all your business needs.

License this cover image via bromocorah.

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