Licensing. What to Look for When Buying Photos?

Purchasing stock photos is quick, convenient, and cost-effective. However, the photo license can harbor several pitfalls.

Purchasing photos from stock agencies is quick, convenient, and cost-effective, especially when compared to organizing your photo sessions. However, the photo license can harbor several pitfalls, mainly of a formal nature, which you should keep in mind when buying photos. Each stock agency operates under its terms and conditions.

Whether you buy photos or use websites with free vector illustrations or photos, you must follow the license. The fundamental points of the regulations are similar, but upon closer inspection, nuances can make a significant difference. Today, we will discuss the details.

First and foremost, there is no one-size-fits-all license scheme, and it looks slightly different in each stock agency. There are hundreds of places where you can buy photos and hundreds of different sets of rules, so always consider the agency’s terms and conditions as the ultimate source of information.

What is a License?

The first thing to understand is that “buying photos” is a considerable shortcut. In reality, when you buy from stock agencies, you are purchasing a license to use a specific photograph. A license is a type of agreement that grants you the ability to use a photo under certain conditions.

The license is not a transfer of copyright, where you acquire economic rights to a work. Thus, the photograph does not become your property, and a more precise description is “renting” photos rather than “buying” them. You typically need to purchase a license when the use of the photo is related to your professional activity (for profit) and when you want to visualize your product.

We can talk about paid and unpaid licenses. I’ve described the types of the latter in a separate post.

As for paid licenses, each agency provides the opportunity to purchase various variations. They usually differ in the restrictions on using the photos: the greater the possibilities for using a photo, the higher its price.

Licenses can be exclusive or non-exclusive. When you acquire images under an exclusive license, you can be assured that no one else but you will obtain the right to utilize that content. Unfortunately, due to the nature of stock agencies’ operations, they rarely offer the option to purchase graphics exclusively.

Can I Send Photos to the Client?

Many of our clients who have purchased WordPress hosting for agencies while creating solutions for their clients use various stock photo banks. They often buy photos on behalf of their clients. The matter of sending such a photo is regulated differently in each license, and this is one of those elements to consider when choosing specific stock photo agencies.

Some agencies provide the option to purchase a license on behalf of the client, but in such a case, you must have this possibility previously stipulated in the agreement with the client. However, it is more common to have a stricter clause that prohibits sending the photo to the client in an unchanged form.

It’s a different story if the photo is part of a project. In such a scenario, the client acquires rights to it through collaboration with you. However, sometimes additional restrictions regarding resale or the role of the photo in the project may arise.

Main Limitations of Stock Photos

I’ll start by noting that most stock photo agencies include in their licenses a restriction on using photos and graphics in a logo. Therefore, if you use an icon or a part of it in a logo, you are violating the license. However, quantity limitations are perhaps one of the major pitfalls to watch out for.

Most commonly, you may encounter a quantity limitation (usually 500,000) concerning the displays of materials (e.g., an e-book with a photo on the cover or a banner advertisement). If you expect to surpass this limit, acquire an extended license – it’s more expensive, but most agencies lift any numerical restrictions after its purchase.

Stock photos come with numerous restrictions. The cheaper the license, the more requirements and limitations there are.

Quantity limitations typically don’t apply to displaying photos on a website, but it’s still worth noting and checking. Licensing agreements may contain a stipulation that if you use the projects for templates (e.g., creating your WordPress theme), you must purchase an extended license.

At times, you might encounter restrictions concerning the highest web-based file resolution.

In the case of print, you will most often encounter a clause specifying quantity limitations. A print run of 500,000 may be challenging to exceed for local flyers, but when it comes to packaging, it can be a significant restriction. Purchasing an extended license will resolve this issue.

Can I Resell or Distribute Products with Photos or Graphics Purchased from a Stock Photo Agency?

Most well-known stock photo agencies do not permit the creation of your products based on a standard license. If you intend to resell such products, you will need an extended license. However, it’s crucial to carefully review it as you may encounter additional restrictions (e.g., modification requirements or usage as one of several elements).

If you’re creating something for a client, especially for advertising purposes, it doesn’t fall under the category of resale. However, if your client will derive direct profit from the project and resell it to their customers, you must consider the intended use.

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The Primary and Secondary Roles of Photos in a Project

In some stock photo agencies, you may come across variations in the scope of licenses depending on whether the photo or graphic plays a primary or secondary role in the project. The critical question is whether they enhance the value of the product they’re used in or significantly increase the likelihood of purchase.

If you’re purchasing a photo for use as part of a book cover or an illustration in a book, but the customer is buying the book primarily for its content, it is allowed within the license. However, if the book consists mainly of illustrations, you may violate the license. Similarly, if you buy a photo for a holiday card or a digital product, and it significantly determines its attractiveness, you may violate the license.

You can use graphics in a mobile app as one of the interface elements. However, in a situation where it’s, for example, an app with phone wallpapers, and the purchased photo is one of them, it would violate the license. As you can see, before making a purchase, you need to analyze the role of the photo in the project.

Can I use a Purchased Photo in Projects for Multiple Clients as a Freelancer or Agency?

Once again, you’ll need to refer to the specific license. Some stock photo agencies allow you to use a photo for multiple projects. However, in such cases, it’s always worth carefully checking the terms. More often than not, you’ll encounter the requirement to purchase an extended license.

Another pitfall is the number of individuals within a company who can use a particular photo. You might assume that when purchasing a photo as a reseller hosting company, every employee can utilize it. In reality, you’re buying a license for a specific number of seats. Typically, it is one in standard licenses.

It’s essential to thoroughly review the terms of the licensing agreement. You may find exceptions to this rule, and your colleague from the office might be able to manipulate graphic designs or create hundreds of additional ad formats if the base version is a graphic project in which the photo is just one element.

License Duration and Penalties for Violation

Most popular stock photo agencies grant perpetual licenses and don’t impose territorial restrictions. However, before making a purchase, you need to ensure whether the photo you’re interested in falls under these conditions. Such limitations are present in agencies that offer exclusive license options.

A way to bypass territorial restrictions could be to use offshore hosting and select servers for your website in a country that is accepted by the photo agency.

If it turns out that you’ve violated the license, your first step should be to cease the violations, remove the consequences, and remedy the harm. Often, it’s required to issue a public statement.

Additionally, the creator of the photo or graphic may expect financial compensation. They can demand the enforcement of their rights based on general principles or payment of appropriate remuneration. In practice, it varies widely, and the court decides on the penalty, considering various factors.


There are indeed numerous nuances, and it’s challenging to navigate through all of this. There are many exceptions and considerable flexibility in formulating licenses. The subject is so complex that it’s hard for individuals outside the legal field to grasp, and I hope that with this post, I’ve shed at least some light on it.

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What is a photo license when purchasing stock photos?
Are there different types of photo licenses?
Can I send purchased photos to clients?
Can I use purchased photos for projects involving multiple clients as a freelancer or agency?
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