Stock Images in Retail: What You Need to Know

From mugs, stationary and postcards to t-shirts, sweatshirts and posters, products boasting stock images abound throughout the retail world.

Did you know that most images used on retail products require extended-use licenses because these products are primarily based off the photo itself? However, an image used on the cover of a best-selling book does not require an extended license simply because it is considered an addition to the author’s literary work.

Sound tricky? Discerning these various image terms isn’t always easy. So, how do you know which license is best to use, and when?

Let’s start with a quick “stock photo 101” lesson. Stock photos are licensed images that can be purchased for specific purposes, including uses online and in print. The photographers who create these images retain their copyrights regardless of the number of user purchases.

The main types of stock photography are macrostock, or traditional, and microstock, a crowdsourcing model featuring very low fees. Traditional images generally have relatively high prices and are more likely to be available exclusively (rights managed, or RM) or under an RF license, where you pay once and use the image under a set of specific requirements. Microstock images, which have lower prices and are “royalty-free,” now dominate the stock photography industry, with more than 90 percent of the downloads ever made.

To use a stock photo, you must purchase an editorial-only license, a commercial license, or if the photo is only for personal use, a retail license. The license may be Royalty Free, RM or Commissioned. For example, a standard Dreamstime RF license grants unlimited use within the same organization, with a limit of 500,000 copies for printed materials. Typically, this type of license covers a client’s needs, including for use on the web and social media platforms.

Some clients need more than a standard license, such as the option to extend the rights. This approach is via Extended Licenses. If the organization needs more than 500,000 copies, it can extend the limit to 2,500,000 copies, using the “Increase Maximum Copies” (I-EL) extended license.

If you want to print stock images on physical items intended to be sold – including calendars, t-shirts, mugs, posters, greeting cards and postcards – you can buy a "Print Usage” extended license (P-EL). This doesn’t mean that every photo that will be printed needs an extended license, but only those photos on which the products to be sold are based. For example, a photo for a book cover doesn’t need an extended license, because it’s just an extension of the author’s work, while printing a postcard is only based on photos, so those images must be purchased with a P-EL.

A standard license includes general, everyday web usage up to 800px size, but clients who develop and sell web templates, e-cards or screen savers, can buy a Web Usage extended license (W-EL).

Here are some additional tips about stock images and licenses:
  • Buy images that haven’t been bought by your competitors. The simplest approach is to choose images with zero or just a few downloads (either fresh or undiscovered). On Dreamstime, for example, this information is available for each image, so you can use it to your advantage.
  • Provide a credit line for each photo published in an article. This way, the photographers can find their images in use, and then share your links to their followers in social media.
  • Don’t use photos from uncertain sources, such as search engines, social media or photo sharing sites. If you get reported, you can be penalized by search engines (for example, Google will remove those links from their search results), your reputation can be affected, and you also can be held liable and forced to pay damages in court.
The bottom line: If you work for a customer (like most designers do), you can purchase a standard license, but if you plan to sell your work on the open market (or your client plans to sell on the open market), you have to buy images with extended licenses.

Viorel Dudau is editor of Dreamstime, a stock image service provider. 

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