Royalty-Free Digital Assets — Not As Free As You Might Think

When you need an image from a stock photo house, you have the choice of selecting rights managed or royalty free assets. Rights-managed licenses have strict terms and conditions to ensure that assets are not over used in a specific industry, channel, or region (imagine, for example, the problems that would arise if two competing companies used the same image of smiling customers in an advertisement at the same time).

If you don’t need such a high level of exclusivity, you can opt for royalty-free images. These assets don’t have complex usage rights and so you are able to use them much more freely. However, if you take the time to download and read the licenses that come with your royalty-free assets, you’ll discover that royalty-free is not as free as you might think.

If you are responsible for managing digital assets, one important restriction you should be aware of is that many royalty-free images cannot be stored in a Digital Asset Management (DAM) system.  Shutterstock’s royalty free license, for example, flatly states “you may not … make images available on a digital asset management system, shared drive or the like for the purposes of sharing or transferring such images.”

Getty’s royalty-free license is slightly more forgiving in that it allows you to store images in a DAM if they cannot be accessed by more than ten people. Of course, since your DAM probably has more than a handful of users, this means you really shouldn’t have these images in your system either.

Even if you can’t upload an image, you should still store metadata about that asset in your DAM. The metadata-only record enables users to find the asset when they search by description or keyword. It is also the logical place to capture the rights metadata associated with that image. For example, many stock photo houses do not allow you to Tweet your royalty free images or post them on Facebook. You should track that social media restriction in your DAM.  Looking at a Getty royalty free license, here are some data points you will want to track:

  • Allowed usage (Editorial vs. Marketing)
  • Copyright
  • Credit line
  • Maximum number of views or copies
  • Social media restrictions
  • Digital copy of original invoice
  • Expiration date

Is that all the information you need to record for a Getty image? Don’t take my word for it! Talk to your legal team to make sure you really know what is required for your company.  Managing digital rights is a serious business with very serious consequences if you make a mistake.

All of this serves as a reminder that licensed assets are just that: licensed, with terms and conditions. Royalty free doesn’t mean you are completely free to use an image any way you want. There are limits to what you can do. Take the time to find out what those limits are and then track those limits in your DAM. If you manage your usage rights correctly, your images will remain assets for your company and won’t become liabilities.

Demian Hess About Demian Hess

Demian Hess is Avalon Consulting, LLC's Director of Digital Asset Management and Publishing Systems. Demian has worked in online publishing since 2000, specializing in XML transformations and content management solutions. He has worked at Elsevier, SAGE Publications, Inc., and PubMed Central. After studying American Civilization and Computer Science at Brown University, he went on to complete a Master's in English at Oregon State University, as well as a Master's in Information Systems at Drexel University.

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