Image license rights – What to look out for

The use of pictures in presentations can be extremely helpful. They can support and enhance content. They can convey messages instantly. They can make a presentation more interesting and provide visual orientation. Many companies have defined their own visual language in their Corporate Design. Many also have their own image database with many very good photos that they own. And yet, so often you’re faced with a situation where you are searching for the right picture.

Beware of photo stock pitfalls

First of all, the appropriate image has to be found. Which can involve a lot of effort. Where to even start looking? Then you need to check that the quality is as advertised. Does it fit your brand and the message of your presentation? Then there are all the legal aspects. What is permitted? What is not? As you can see, the issue is complex.

The right to an image


Now it gets even more complicated. In terms of image rights, we’re now talking about completely different levels and angles.

To begin with, there are the rights of the photographer to the image and the copyright of the image itself. International laws legislate all of this, in addition to every country having their own laws and regulations. Then there is the photographer’s right of personality, to be fulfilled by crediting the image’s origin. Distorting or changing the image in any way is also prohibited by law. And, of course, there is copyright as such. And license rights. And different levels of rights by agreement with the individual agency.

Photo stock agencies

Most of the time you’d go searching for images at a photo stock agency. These can roughly be divided into macrostock, midstock and microstock agencies. Macrostock agencies tend to deal in so-called rights-managed (RM) licenses. They are usually exclusive, of premium quality and by professional photographers. You buy the right to use them once. Microstock agencies tend to offer royalty-free (RF) licenses. After purchasing the image (often by amateur photographers), you are permitted multiple use without time limit. In parallel to this is the ‘themed‘ level ‒ universal agencies, press agencies and specialist photo stock agencies. The latter are agencies that actually specialize in themed images, e.g. food, sport, business. And last but not least, there are numerous no-cost agencies and public-domain images.

Getty Images, Sipa Press or Corbis are macrostock agencies. Shutterstock or Fotolia are midstock agencies. iStock, Dreamstime, Photocase, Pixelio are called microstock agencies. To give you an idea of costs, here’s a rule of thumb: macrostock agencies start at around 100 euros per image, midstock charge between 10 to 100 euros, and microstock will set you back between 1 to 10 euros. Naturally, you need to look at each case individually and ask for a quote.

Licenses and Rights

There are several fundamental questions that you ought to answer honestly, just to be on the safe side:

  • Did you purchase the images correctly for all the media that you’ll use? Did you read the fine print, e.g. period or type of ownership?
  • Does the Agreement stipulate that you have to credit image origins? If so, did you? This is a common requirement and often the case in editorial situations. And, no, it’s not enough to obscurely list them in the metadata.
  • What is shown in the picture? Are people recognizable? Or trademarks, brand names or works of art? Anything to which a third party could lay claim? Beware! Either clarify these rights in advance or simply touch-up the image to eliminate those.
  • Are the people in the picture aware what the photo is to be used for? Make sure you have e.g. pre-printed forms ready for them to sign.
  • Were all outdoor shots taken while on public grounds?
  • If you are an advertising agency, you need to remember to list your customers as licensees. Otherwise you might be in for a surprise when the photo stock agency doesn’t recognize them as authorized users. Your customers will in all likelihood not appreciate that very much.
  • Will the images be used again or in a different context? For example, in a print brochure made available as a PDF for download? Then you’ll need to clarify whether this further use would be deemed a new endeavour or simply a ‘citing’ of the original endeavour. If the latter is the case then all is well.

Every photo stock agency has its very own license rights and terms & conditions. As tedious as they may be, you need to read them. More about that shortly.

Infringing image rights is easily done. It’s also very easy to receive a warning for this. Which can be costly, really costly. If legally speaking, you are a company, and not a private entity or person, then for all your PowerPoint presentations there is no such thing as “on the fly” or “just this once”. Don’t even think along those lines.

As always, this blog post serves to raise awareness and provide information. Regarding the topic discussed, we would like to clearly point out that this blog in no way represents any form of legal advice, because, as you’ve noticed, the issues surrounding image rights can be quite complex. Which is why each instance needs to be examined on its own merits.

Photo stock agencies and their lawyers take this issue seriously. Please do the same – it will only take a moment.


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