The cost of the unlicensed image

Written by Simon Emery on 14th August 2013

(Last updated 9th December 2022)

It's one of those invoices you never want to receive - an image library demanding payment for an image you didn’t realise had been used. By then it's too late, the picture has spread far and wide.

But how does this come about? Unfortunately it’s easier than you would think. Thankfully the biggest causes can be avoided by fully understanding the different types of licenses available, the rules of the image libraries themselves and by following a few simple housekeeping tasks.


What are the different types of image licenses?

There are a number of libraries out there and all will offer Rights Managed and/or Royalty Free images. By familiarising yourself with the different types of license available, it will help guide you towards a particular library/image type that is most suitable for your campaign and budget.

Rights Managed

Rights Managed are restrictive in their use and require tight control over when and how they are used. The art direction is well thought out. They are highly stylised, high quality and well refined - all of which comes at a price. When purchasing the rights, you will have to itemise and pay for all the times you plan to use the image. If you’re running cross channel marketing activity, these costs can soon rack up. You also buy the rights for a set period of time. Use the image for longer than stated, or on a medium you haven’t purchased, and the library will charge you a premium.

Here are a list of the more popular libraries (all offer the option to purchase Royalty Free too). Feel free to let us know if there are any you would recommend:

Royalty Free

If you require freedom and flexibility when it comes to where and when the image will be used, then Royalty Free images will be more suitable. These can be used for any application, across multiple channels and for as long as you like. The price is generally based on image size and not how many times and where you use it.

This allows some level of protection should images be used on top of their original purpose. However, choice of images can be more limited and don’t usually have the same style and quality as Rights Managed.

However, there are some conditions:

  • Online usage is ‘unlimited’ but there are restrictions on the size the image can be displayed at. These vary with each library from 800x600px up to around 1200x800px. You’ll need to take this into consideration when looking at where/how these will be used.
  • There is a growing debate caused by increasing screen resolutions. The limit on pixel sizes is complicated if you’re trying to satisfy an iPad Retina user with a 2048x1536px screen, with a 800x600px image.
  • There are restrictions to how many times an image can be reproduced in print. These tend to be between 250,000-500,000 and although may seem generous, they are easily swallowed up with newspaper or magazine advertising.
  • All libraries are different and they do vary, so please check with the specific rights holder.

There are a number of Royalty Free image libraries, here are just a few (again, let us know if there are any you would recommend):

They’ll never know, right?

I know you might be thinking that the web is a big place and that ‘they’ll never know’ if you use an image without paying. However all the major libraries use the services provided by companies such as Picscout (owned by Getty Images) to find where their images are being used, and to check that the correct rights have been paid.

You may get away with it for a while, but they will catch up with you. They will track how long you've been using the image and you'll being charged the full whack for the entire time.



Now that you have a better understanding of the different types of licenses available and have decided on the best solutions to satisfy your requirements, there are a couple of housekeeping tasks to help you stay out of trouble.

Consider the full scope of your project

Even in this cross channel marketing world, online and offline designers are often split into separate teams. Ultimately this leads to campaigns being designed in isolation and once approved the assets are passed around the organisation to be implemented across the channels.

Whilst the original design team purchase the correct rights, there may be a lack of consideration for the wider implications. Whether you are a designer or marketer, always bear in mind the full scope of your campaigns.

Storage of the original file

Despite the correct rights for an image being purchased, once a project is completed these images can fall into the big black hole on the server. Sooner or later, someone comes across this beautiful image that is just ‘perfect’ for their latest project...

As an organisation, if you have a Digital Asset Management (DAM) system it is imperative that all images are tagged with their source and restrictions. If you don’t, you must have a clear file structure that keeps library images in a clear marked and defined source file.

Keep records

It’s key to keep clear records of all your image purchases so that you are aware of when licenses were bought, who from and what usage restrictions there are. If you are responsible for multiple brands (whether in-house or within an Agency) it will also help keep clear instructions as to who are allowed to use each image.

Libraries have been known to make mistakes and this will give you clear purchase history. Very similar images can appear on different libraries or a photographer can sell their images through multiple outlets. If you are approached it always helps to have the paper trail to prove you have the correct licence.

Know where the images have come from

For designers there is also a level of discipline that needs to be adhered to. When starting a new project its all too easy to go back to old files and migrate layouts and assets. A few months down the line you find yourself being sued for something you’d inadvertently done. There needs to be a level of responsibility in knowing where the images you are using have come from - ‘Copy and Paste’ may well be the shortcut that comes back to bite you.

Grey areas...

As with any type of agreement, there are always those grey areas. For example, can you display items containing a library image? As a design company can you display a library image on a portfolio/client page when you are showcasing your work? Its not immediately clear but the answer would appear to be yes, as long as its not shown in isolation but in context with its use.

This is just one of any number of 'What If' questions. The answer will probably be that it depends. Image libraries are more than open to talking through these queries. They are also more likely to negotiate on price and help you work towards a budget before the event, rather than afterwards.



Whilst it may be easy to see the image libraries as the enemy (and yes, they are in it to make money) but they are just another supplier. Ultimately, they want you to have a great experience of their service to keep you coming back. By investing the time to build the relationship, rather than putting up barriers, you'll soon reap the benefits.

And finally... There are a number out there, but here are just a selection of stories of people being chased by image libararies. (Apologies to Getty, nothing personal, but the majority do seem to be about you...)

This article was posted in SEO by Simon Emery