Stock vs. Royalty Free Photos: What Are the Differences?

A picture is worth a thousand royalty fees.

Took a swerve at the end there, huh? It’s true: there’s a lot of complexity attached to using images you find online. If you’re looking for images and have run into a baffling maze of terminology, we’re here to clear things up.

Here’s the difference between stock and royalty-free photos, and what it means for you.

What Are Stock Photos?

The idea behind stock photos isn’t complicated: it’s a way of sourcing your images through a third party.

Where things get complicated is on the matter of copyright, licensing, and royalties. Most stock photos have these in place, meaning you have to pay for their use. Many of these are royalty-based—you have to pay each time you use the image. The photographer is just like a musician getting paid when their song plays on the radio.

Free stock photos exist but you’ll need to check the license of even a free photo before you use it. Some may be free for personal use but not for commercial use, for example.

What Does Royalty-Free Mean?

Stock vs royalty-free is something of a false dichotomy. In fact, royalty-free images are a subset of stock photos.

What makes royalty-free photos different is their licensing structure. Instead of having to pay to use each instance of a photo, you can use a royalty-free image an unlimited number of times after you purchase its license (if it has one.)

Don’t let the word “free” fool you. A royalty-free image isn’t always free to use (though free royalty-free photo sites exist) and it’s still protected under copyright. All it means is that you won’t pay ongoing royalties for the use of an image.

As with other stock photos, check the terms of the license before you use a royalty-free image.

What’s the Difference?

If you’ve been paying close attention, you’ll note that the main difference between stock and royalty-free photos is the pricing expectation.

Although stock photos can be free to use, most aren’t. A stock’s license controls its use. If you don’t pay for the license, you can’t use the image, and that license may include ongoing royalties. Royalty-free stock may have an initial cost, but you won’t have to pay royalties on its use.

This also leads to another key difference: exclusivity. If you want an image that you won’t see replicated elsewhere (e.g. on a competitor’s site) then a limited license stock photo is the way to go.

In contrast, royalty-free images are more generous. You can use the image as you like after purchasing its license without paying further royalty fees. The drawback is that the license doesn’t guarantee exclusivity. There’s a good chance people have already seen the image you’ve chosen dozens of times in other contexts.

Stock vs Royalty-Free Photos: The Difference Explained

Copyright and usage licenses aren’t the easiest things to grasp. With this guide, you can find the photos you need for your next project—without burning your cash on royalty fees.

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