Your guide to stock images

You’ve found the perfect image for your book cover, but do you have the right to use it? Let’s look at image licensing.

As writers, we can spend days dreaming of the perfect image to represent our character or our world on the cover, but when it comes to actually pinning down that image outside of our Pinterest boards things can get a whole lot more complicated. 

You probably know that you can’t just find an image on Pinterest or Google Image Search and use that without getting into legal trouble, which means you’re left with the choice between hiring someone to make the image of your dreams (with photography or illustration), which can be extremely expensive, or using stock.

“Stock” is a term for pre-supplied photographs and illustrations that are made available for licensed use. Most of the time this means that many people can use the same picture if they want to, provided they pay the licensing fee. There’s no shame in using stock – most big publishers do – and any good cover designer will apply a variety of tricks to make your cover look unique. 

Who wore it better? (Disclaimer: None of these was designed by me)

Even when you’re using stock, there is fine print that will define what you can and can’t use. I once worked with a man who misunderstood a deal that Getty Images was offering and had to pay $300 per day of unlicensed use of the image on his website. Ouch! To avoid this kind of thing happening, let’s take a closer look at some of the common Ts & Cs.

Paid images

Some stock sites charge per image, some allow you to buy image bundles, and some require you sign up for a subscription that allows you a certain number of images per month. A common misconception is that when you pay for an image you’re buying it. What you’re actually doing is paying for the right to use it and these rights are limited.

  • Exclusive vs non-exclusive Exclusive means that only you get to use the image. Some sites give you the opportunity to buy this type of license but it is always much more expensive than non-exclusive, which is pretty much the default. This means that multiple people can use the image for their covers and it’s up to the designer to create a unique look and feel for your specific cover. 
  • Single project – You only have the rights to use this image once. Which means if you want to use it for a series (for example) you will have to pay for it every time you use it. 
  • Single seat/user – Only one person can use the image, but they may use it as many times as they like. For example, if your cover designer buys the license for the image, then you might run into trouble if you want someone else to use the image to design some coffee mugs for you as merchandise. Seat refers to a position in a company, user refers to the particular person who holds the account. 
  • Royalty – This means that you have to pay a percentage of profits (which will be disclosed) every time you use the image. It’s rare for stock  providers to charge royalties and more common if you hire a photographer yourself. 
  • Royalty-free – This means that you pay the license fee and do not have to pay an extra percentage of profits every time you use it. 
  • Extended distribution – All stock providers will have in their fine print a maximum number of copies that the image is licensed for. Don’t worry, it’s usually about 500,000. If you plan to print more books than that, firstly, congrats because you’ve clearly Made It. Secondly, you’re going to want to buy the “extended distribution” license which allows for more copies. 
  • Editorial use only – this means you can’t use it for a cover, it’s meant for newspapers and news sites and not for any kind of commercial use. 

Free images

Sites like Pixabay and Unsplash are a blessing to indie authors. With thousands of images to choose from, you’re likely to find something you can use. One consideration to bear in mind is that the cheaper the image, the more likely you are to find someone else has used it already. In the case of free, this means a lot of people. There are also often limitations on this freedom. 

  • Creative commons – a wonderful movement that encourages people to share and create content, sometimes for free. But be aware that creative commons does not mean free necessarily. These are the most common conditions:
    • Attribution: You can use the image for free as long as you credit the creator in the way that they’ve requested
    • Attribution  non-commercial: You cannot use these for book covers unless you don’t plan to sell your book. This means that you must attribute, and you can’t make a profit off the work. Often creators will request that you contact them to let them know if you want to use the work for something commercial and then they might be open to selling you rights, or to a royalty plan.
    • Attribution no derivatives: this is also not a good idea for a cover, because it means that you have to use the image as is and can’t change it, although you can contact the creator to discuss. 
    • No copyright/public domain: – this is the jackpot for covers because it means it’s entirely free for use, but you still need to be aware of some other rights issues.
  • Model release – The first thing to be wary of when using free images is whether or not the person featured in the image agreed that anyone could use it for whatever they want. If a person is recognisable, you need to try to contact the creator to make sure that person doesn’t mind you using their picture. Paid stock sites will often state model release is included, free sites? Not so much. 
  • Property release – recognisable buildings, private property and famous brands may require special permission to be featured on a cover. Paid stock sites require photographers to submit these releases when they upload stock, but free sites don’t, which leaves it up to you to check. Shutterstock has a handy list of banned subjects that includes places like The Colosseum and Disney Theme Parks. 
  • Dignity stipulation – most free stock image sites, if not all, include the stipulation that you may not use the images in a way that portrays the models in an undignified manner regardless of whether or not you have a model release. 
  • Editorial use only – these are images that are only free for newspapers or education and not for commercial projects like book covers. 
  • Illegally uploaded images – Some free sites let anyone upload images, which means that there may be some illegal images there or images that break someone else’s copyright (for example, I’ve seen images of Star Wars ships and Lego, two brands which definitely did not license the use of their copyright for free images). When using free images, it is up to you to ensure that the image or content is not copyrighted by someone else. 

Who’s doing what

I wanted to make a quick reference sheet for you, so I delved into the Ts & Cs of some of the most popular sites.

Please note: this info is current as of time of writing and may change at any time. Please double check the terms for yourself. Listed in no particular order.

SiteLicence summary
Deposit Photos– Single seat (other options available)
– Unlimited uses
– Allows 500,000 prints before an extended license is required
– You’re not allowed to use their photos in templates. 
Shutterstock– Single seat
– Attribution required
– Allows 500,000 copies before an extended license is required
123RF– Single seat
– No resale in curtain formats
– Allows 500,000 copies before an extended license is required (a variety of extended licenses are offered)
iStock– Single user
– Unlimited uses
– No stockpiling (you may not store images with intentions to use them some time in the future)
– Allows 500,000 copies before an extended license is required
Fotolia– One seat, one client
– You’re not allowed to store the image on more than one device
– Limited social media use
– Allows 500,000 copies before an extended license is required
Bigstock– Single seat
– Only allows 250,000 digital copies before an extended license is required
Storyblocks– Single seat
– Unlimited projects
– Unlimited distribution (no extended license required)
– Access to unlimited downloads from a Marketplace
Twenty20– Single seat
– Unlimited projects
– Unlimited digital copies
– Allows 250,000 print copies before an extended license is required
Getty ImagesOffers both royalty free and “rights managed” which are limited to specific uses. You may also arrange exclusive use of some of the images. 
500pxOffers both exclusive and non exclusive options
ThinkStock– Single user
– Unlimited projects
– No stockpiling (you may not store images with intentions to use them some time in the future)

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