Royalty free images or rights managed, what does it mean?


Whether you are putting together your website, social media posts, newsletter or leaflet the chances are you will want some imagery to bring the design to life. But where do you get your images from and is it ok to download images for free from the internet?


Image rights and what it means for a small business owner

Unfortunately you can’t just use images that you find on Google or on Pinterest, you need the copyright to use any image if you did not take the photograph. In accordance with the 1988 Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, all photographers (whether they are professional, amateur, or just a friend with an iPhone) own the photos they take, and therefore own the copyright to them: they own where and how the images are used.

There are numerous image sites that you can buy images from and even download images for free, and here you will probably come across the terms, royalty free, rights managed, commercial use and sometimes editorial use only.


What does Royalty Free mean?

If you buy or download a royalty free image you can use that image on your leaflet, in social media and on your website for one flat fee or for free depending on where you downloaded it from.

Some royalty free images will have no terms and conditions linked to them and therefore you can use them where you like and as often as you like. Others you may find have some small print, for example: ‘Limited usage in print, advertising, and packaging. Unlimited web distribution.’

Images from and are free to use and on their licence agreement they say the following:

•  All photos and videos on these websites are free to use.

• Attribution is not required on all of the images but do check the small print. Giving credit to the photographer may not be necessary but always appreciated.

• You can modify the photos and videos from these websites. Be creative and edit them as you like.

Royalty free are the simplest type of images to use but do check the small print.


What does Rights Managed mean?

Rights managed means that before you purchase the image you have to tell the owner where and how you plan to use that image and how many times you plan to use it. The cost of buying that image will be dependent on these factors.

Places like Getty tend to have rights managed images and you do have to pay a higher premium for using them.

You can not download a rights managed image and use it more than what was agreed. If you do you will be liable for a fine.


Editorial images

‘Editorial use only’ is what it says on the tin; this image can only be used for editorial articles and often you have to add a copyright line to the image.


Always check the small print

Always double check the small print and licence agreement on the website that you are downloading the image from. Sometimes they say they are free but then have a copyright line which doesn’t give you permission for commercial use, or to use in print.



Often it is easy to tell when the image used has not been bought correctly and just downloaded as there will be a watermark across it. These watermarks are there to protect the photographer so that they receive the money owed for their work.


Bespoke imagery

A commissioned photographer should give you full rights to use your images as and when you like. But make sure when you are agreeing what images they are taking that you also ask about rights and who owns the images, that you have the rights to use the images online, in advertising, on social media, or anywhere else you plan to market your business.


The information given here was correct at the time of writing but image rights on websites can change so please do check for yourself.