HomeBlog > A Small Business Guide to Using Stock Photos

A Small Business Guide to Using Stock Photos

How to source and use images from the Internet, legally

14th July 2016 | Marketing

A Small Business Guide to Using Stock Photos

Finding and using photographs and illustrations for your business is easier than ever, with a huge choice and instant access to high quality imagery available at your fingertips. Because of this convenience, it is also easier than ever to fall foul of legal copyright issues.

“A picture is worth a thousand words” goes the oft-quoted saying. There is no doubt that images are key to getting noticed and conveying the right message to your target audience. Using good quality, well-chosen photographs and artwork can make a huge difference, whether you are advertising in a magazine, on the side of a bus, through social media, or on a website.

Business owners using images need to be aware of the legal issues to ensure they are protected from the risk of legal action and costs. Although image rights are a potentially complex area of law, there are well-developed standards which if followed can remove most of the legal dangers to your business.


A photographer or artist automatically has copyright over their work when it is created. Copyright is an exclusive set of legal rights such as the right to reproduce, sell, or license an image or other work. These rights can be, and often are, assigned to other parties such as publishers or stock photo libraries.

Anyone wishing to use an image for any purpose, whether commercial or otherwise, has to have permission from the copyright owner to do so, usually in the form of a license.

Without having the right permission can expose the user to legal action for infringement of copyright, which may include monetary damages, legal fees, and in some situations, criminal charges.

Can I use images from the Internet?

Finding a nice image using Google Image search and right-clicking to capture a copy of it is a cinch. But can you use it on your website, article, or brochure? In short, no. You will be breaching copyright in relation to 99% of photos, illustrations, graphics, and other images you come across.

The Internet is a big place, but image fingerprinting technology allows copyright owners to identify where their images – even if modified – are being used. If the image user comes up short when asked to produce evidence that they have an appropriate image license, expensive legal action can ensue.

Stock Photography Websites

BLI PhotoIconOnline stock image websites allow businesses, designers, and other users to select images for commercial or personal use, usually for a one-off fee or as part of a subscription.

Many stock photo sites provide stock video and audio files in addition to images – i.e. photos, illustrations, designs, and backgrounds.

Licensing arrangements are specified clearly, and provided that the user sticks to the license conditions they will be safe from any copyright issues, which can extend beyond the original artist or photographer.

For example, identifiable individuals, visible brands, and recognisable landmarks and buildings in photos may each have a claim to their image being used. The stock photo service will be responsible for obtaining the appropriate legal clearances.

Our Top Picks | Stock Photography Services

Types of Commercial Image Licenses

There are a number of different image license types in common use. It is important to be aware that the specific conditions of licenses offered by different stock image services may vary in detail, so you should read through the conditions before purchasing to make sure the use to which you will put your images is covered.

Royalty Free (RF) Licenses

Royalty free is the most common type of commercial use image license and will suit most digital publishing uses for businesses such as websites, emails, social media posts, and online advertisements.

“Royalty free” does not mean “free”, but simply that there is no ongoing requirement for the user to pay royalties to the copyright owner once the initial license fee is paid.

There is always a fee involved to purchase an RF image license, but this gives the user the right to use (but not own) the image, usually indefinitely, and the user is indemnified against any legal action. It is not an exclusive license so it is possible that you will use an image and see it used elsewhere.

RF licenses don’t usually require you to provide any attribution to the photographer/artist or stock image provider, but this should be checked in the license conditions.

Rights Managed (RM) Licenses

Where exclusivity is required, a Rights Managed license gives the user exclusive use of an image for a set time period, within a specified geographical area, and often for a single project.

The costs of an RM license are higher than RF, but may be desirable in certain circumstances such as where the image will form an important part of brand imagery, and the company wants to avoid brand dilution. They are also sometimes necessary where printed materials are involved in larger volumes which extend beyond RF license conditions.

Extended or Enhanced Licenses

An Extended or Enhanced License may be available at an additional cost, to extend the rights available under their RF license. This may be the case for certain uses not permitted under the original RF license – for example for using on goods for resale, rather than just promotional purposes.

Extended Licenses vary depending upon the stock image service, and not all will provide such an arrangement. As with any license, the conditions should be checked carefully to ensure that your intended usage is properly covered.

Editorial Licenses

BLI EditorialUsePhotoSome images may be licensed for Editorial Use Only, for example for news articles, magazines, or blogs, to provide theming and context to the article.

Editorial images may contain brands, people, or other parties with image rights – for example a busy city street scene with buildings, brand names, and faces clearly visible.  This is in contrast to RF and RM-licensed photos, where legal permission in the form of model or property release, have been given by the people, brands, and trademarked items in the photos.

Because of the uncleared legal rights involved, Editorial Use Only images cannot be used to make money in a directly commercial way – for example in promotional material or goods for sale.

Free Images & Creative Commons (CC) Licenses

There are many sources of free images on the Internet, but licensing is still required. As copyright is granted automatically to the original image creator, legal permission must be given in order to use the image for any purpose.

Creative Commons licenses have been developed relatively recently, to give copyright owners a simple way of granting permission for others to use their images for free. Images foundon Wikipedia, for example, are generally covered by CC licenses. There are a range of different CC licenses available, each permitting different uses. Check the Creative Commons website for full details.

Creative Commons Zero (CC0) license is offered by some free image websites. This allows full, unrestricted, worldwide use of images. CC0 is often referred to as a “public domain” license.

BLI CreativeCommons
Using images without proper legal permission is a risky proposition which small businesses should avoid. Stock photography websites are an affordable and simple way of obtaining suitable photos and other imagery for your business publishing and promotional requirements.


BusinessKitbag.com is a curated collection of trusted online tools and services, to help UK entrepreneurs and small business owners find the right digital resources to launch, manage and grow their businesses.