A beginner's guide to image licensing

First published:
October 26, 2020
February 8, 2024

A beginner's guide to image licensing

First published:
October 26, 2020
February 8, 2024

When it comes to selling your photography, image licensing will always play a big part in how you make money from your work. This guide will ensure you know the ins and outs

If you're getting started in the world of selling your photos, you will have come across the term 'image licensing'.

Knowing what this means, and how licensing works is essential for any photographer wanting to sell their images. And in this guide, we'll give you everything you need to know.

What does image licensing mean?

Image licensing refers to the practice of selling a licence to use your image in a specific way, rather than selling your photo outright to a buyer. It is the industry-standard method for selling photos for editorial, commercial and advertising use, as well as wall art in the form of a personal licence.

So to clarify, when someone purchases a licence for your photo, it means that they cannot use the image in any way they wish, or claim the image as their own. They’ve bought a licence to use your photo in a specific way, not the image itself.

Montage of magazine covers and features including National Geographic Traveller
Examples of images licensed from Picfair for editorial use
"Image licensing refers to the practice of selling a licence to use your image in a specific way, rather than selling your photo outright to a buyer."

What does a licence agreement look like?

A licence can be something as simple as a verbal agreement (which we wouldn’t recommend), or a short email paragraph with bullet points outlining to the buyer how they can use the image for the agreed price.

Licence agreements may also commonly take the form of a lengthy, legally-binding document that can go into great detail of how a buyer can, or cannot use the image. They may also outline any other terms, clauses and obligations (such as the necessity to credit the photographer) along with the image use outline.

Many professional photographers choose to write licence agreements themselves. However, when listing your images with an agency, image library, or photo-selling platform, they will almost always take care of the licensing agreements on your behalf, usually in the form of a standard licence agreement drafted between the agency and their lawyers. They will apply this licence template to any image that’s represented by them and licensed through them.

Top tip:

The same applies when you’re selling your images on Picfair Stores. We’ve put together the licence agreements on your behalf so you don’t have to worry about doing this yourself.

When your images are sold either on your Picfair Store, they are always sold on a licence basis and you’ll always keep the full copyright to your images.

You can see Picfair licence agreements in full.

What are the typical image licensing models?

There are two distinct types of image licensing models that almost all photographers, agencies and libraries use in one way or another. These are:

- Rights-Managed (RM)

The original and most traditional form of image licensing. A Rights-Managed licence does what it says, and stipulates precisely how a buyer can use an image.

Generally, images sold with an RM licence only permit the image to be used once and the terms are particular to the use. Fees for using images with an RM licence will also vary depending on the type and scope of use.

Here are some RM licensing examples:

National Geographic magazine on a wooden surface with breakfast items
Mockup of a webpage
Piccadilly Circus at night long exposure

- Royalty-Free (RF)

A newer model for image licensing, synonymous with subscription-based stock photography websites.

Royalty-Free licensing allows a buyer to purchase an image file, and use it in a broad range of ways without needing to pay an additional fee each time they use it. Usually, a Royalty-Free image will be purchasable at a fixed amount, and the buyer is then free to use the image for an unlimited period.

Although Royalty-Free licensing offers a much broader scope of image use for buyers, the copyright still belongs to the photographer.

Prices for Royalty-Free image licences can also often depend on the actual size of the image purchased. For example, a lo-res image may cost less than a hi-res image as there is less scope in the way the buyer can use the picture.

Mockup of a royalty free image being downloaded from a stock image website

RM vs RF

There are unique benefits to both licensing models, but there are also some drawbacks for each.

For example, RM licences give photographers more control over how a buyer can use their images, and how much they want to charge depending on the use. But buyers may not like having to negotiate a licence each time they want to use the image, which can also become very costly.

An RF licence may save a lot of time and money for the buyer. It also means, however, that the photographer has no say over how the buyer uses the image once the licence is purchased.

Where do Picfair licences fit within these models?

At Picfair, we’ve created the best of both worlds with our licensing model. While our licenses would typically fall under the RM model, they allow much greater scope of use typical to an RF licence.

The big difference is that our licences are one-time use only, meaning the buyer can only use the image for a single campaign, publication or project. If they want to use the same image again, but for something else, they need to buy another licence.

Picfair’s model gives the buyer much more flexibility over how they can use the image for their project. It also provides the photographer with greater control over where and how buyers use their image.

You’ll find more specific details on Picfair licences in our FAQs, and our dedicated licences page.

How can I put together a bespoke licence agreement?

If a buyer has come to you directly (not via a library or agency) and you need to put together a licence agreement, this can take on a range of formats. From a verbal agreement, right through to a comprehensive legal document, and everything in between.

Generally, we wouldn’t recommend anything as informal as a verbal agreement. Ideally, you’ll want something in writing that you can keep on file, which you can also refer to if something goes wrong.

Above all else, we recommend you be as transparent as possible in listing the terms in which a buyer can use your photo. For example, if your customer wants to use your image with a Rights-Managed licence for one page inside a book with a 50,000 print run - make sure all these details are put in writing.

The same goes with Royalty-Free licence agreements, make sure both you and the customer are well aware of all the terms you’ve agreed together so there can be no misinterpretation. Be clear, concise and thorough. Make sure you have the agreement of the licence terms from your buyer in writing, and always keep a record of all correspondence.

Suppose you’re negotiating a licence for an extensive image use (for example a global advertising campaign). In that case, we’d recommend enlisting the help of a copyright lawyer to help draft up a licence agreement. At this level, buyers may also expect to see a detailed agreement from you for their legal team to look through.

Top tip:

If you’re daunted by the prospect of writing your own licence agreements, you can always upload the image to Picfair and ask the buyer to licence it through your Picfair Store.

By doing this, the image use is covered and protected by the terms of Picfair’s Licence Agreements and saves you the hassle of putting together an agreement yourself.

What if a buyer uses my image outside of the licence agreement?

You could class this as a breach of licence, and you would be entirely within your rights to pursue additional costs for the licence breach. For example, if a buyer bought a licence to use your image for one-time use in the October issue of their magazine, but you found they had used your image again in the November issue. You could pursue additional costs for using the image without the correct licence.

In practice, we would always recommend that you pursue any infringements from an amicable point of view. Whilst flagrant licence breaches do occur, genuine mistakes do also happen, and you don’t want to do anything that could seriously jeopardize your relationship with your customer.

What is exclusivity?

Exclusivity is only applicable to the Rights-Managed licence model. When a buyer purchases an image licence with exclusivity, it means that the photographer has agreed with the buyer that they won’t sell the same image, or the same picture with those exact rights, to another buyer.

Buyers may ask for exclusivity for any kind of image use, but it is generally only reserved for uses such as magazine or book covers, advertising campaigns, packaging, and merchandising.

Requests for image licences with exclusivity can be lucrative for a photographer as they tend to be much more costly than a regular image licence. But they are rare. You also need to tread very carefully: if you license an image that has also been agreed for exclusive use elsewhere, you could land yourself in deep trouble with the buyer.

Note: For any of your images that buyers have previously purchased with a Royalty-Free licence, you cannot license these with exclusivity as you cannot guarantee how other parties will use the image.

How about licences on Picfair when it comes to exclusivity?

All Picfair licences are strictly non-exclusive.

Next steps:

Now you’ve reached the end of this article, you should have all the information you need on how image licensing works, to help you make an informed decisions on selling your photos.

And remember: when you upload your images to Picfair, we’ve already got you covered!

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