When searching on stock photography sites, many small business owners don’t know to make the distinction in their search criteria of choosing Royalty Free photos or Rights Managed. After all, a stock photo is a stock photo, right? But, the two types of photos have very different types of usage rights, and vastly different price tags.

First of all, what are usage rights? When you purchase artwork like graphic design or stock photos, the designer or photographer will sell you rights to a certain type or types of usage for the finished piece.

Rights-managed means that you purchase the rights to use the photo in a very specific way. If you would like to later extend the use of these photos, or use them in a different way, you have to go back to the stock photo company and re-purchase additional rights.

For rights-managed stock photos, usage rights may be sold in several ways:

  • Based on the project, which means that you’re allowed to use the photograph in a particular type of design project or marketing piece
  • Based on the size of the print run, or the length of the ad campaign or the time that the website will be used on.
  • Based on the size of the image.
  • Based on the countries or even states where the marketing campaign will be distributed.
  • Based on the industry your company’s in

For example, they might sell you the rights to use a particular image at a size up to ½ of a letter-sized, on the cover of a brochure, for your business services company, on a print run of 10,000, for 1 year, in the US.

There are a couple of problems with this. If you choose to send your brochure to a client in Europe, then you’d be in violation of your rights agreement. If you use the brochure for a year but you still have copies left over at the end of the year, then you’d either have to re-negotiate the rights to use it for a longer period of time or throw away your extra brochures.

Also, rights-managed photos are considerably more expensive than regular, royalty-free stock – rights-managed images average $800 each just to use on the web, and royalty-free stock from Getty Images usually costs about $40.

I suggest that small businesses don't use rights-managed photos, and instead, you search for some royalty-free stock photos. Most stock photo websites have an option where you can exclude Rights-Managed photos from your search, so you won't get any in your search results).

Royalty-free stock photos are not only much less expensive than rights-managed photos, but most stock photo sites will allow you to use a royalty free photo on all of your marketing materials, in print and online, for as long as you’d like. You can reprint materials freely as well. Just about the only thing that you can’t do is to give these photos to another company.