Stock Images; A Little Money Goes A Long Way

Stock Photo from

EUREKA! After searching the four corners of the internet, you have found the image that captures the essence of your story. You want to use it on your cover, website, bookmarks, ball caps, t-shirts and coffee mugs. And perhaps you want to crop, color, distort and enhance it, insert a smoking gun, voluptuous lips, or a devil’s tail.

Slow down. First, where did you find the image? By now, you have read the warnings – DON’T USE IMAGES PLUCKED OFF THE INTERNET WITHOUT PERMISSION. Maybe, just maybe, the image is in the public domain, but why risk it .

My novel COYOTE WINDS takes place during the Dust Bowl, so on my blog and website I use images from the Library of Congress which I know are in the public domain, but for my cover I bought stock images. Same for my new book, Self-Publisher’s Legal Handbook. The image of the glasses on the open book is a stock image from that was enhanced by my cover designer.glasses dreamstime_xxl_30047312

Millions of photographs, illustrations, and vector images are available at online sites such as Dreamstime, Fotolia, I, ShutterstockGetty Images, and Jupiter Images. The images are high quality and reasonably priced. Prices range from $1 to thousands of dollars, but my guess is 95 percent of the images cost less than $100.

Images are available in different sizes and DPI (dots per inch, a measure of resolution quality). The higher the DPI, the better the clarity and resolution of the image. For your book cover, purchase a license to a large, high-resolution image, but for your website and blog an image with a lower resolution may work fine.

Many of these sites also have music clips and videos.

Purchase a royalty-free license and not an editorial license, which is more restrictive. A license means permission to use. You are not buying the copyright or ownership to the image, but the “perpetual, nonexclusive, nontransferable, nonsublicensable, world-right to reproduce the image,” subject to some limitations I describe below. Royalty-free is a misnomer; you are paying the royalty up-front.

Nonexclusive means others may have the right to use the image as well. For exclusive rights (if available), the sites will charge extra, but they cannot do anything about rights already granted. Many illustrators and photographers post their work on multiple sites, so buying exclusive rights from one site may not stop sales on other sites. If you want exclusive rights, contact the image creator to see whether he or she will create a custom image for you.

Coyote howling

Licensed From Jupiter Images

The site iStockphoto lists the following permitted uses for royalty-free licensed images, which are fairly typical:

  • books and book covers, magazines, newspapers, editorials, newsletters; and video, broadcast and theatrical presentations and other entertainment applications,
  • advertising and promotional projects, including printed materials, product packaging, presentations, film and video presentations, commercials, catalogues, brochures, promotional greeting cards, and promotional postcards i.e., not for resale or license),
  • online or electronic publications, and
  • prints, posters, and other reproductions for personal use or promotional purposes, but not for resale, license, or other distribution.

The typical off-the-shelf license has some limitations, although you can purchase expanded rights for additional fees. You may not use the licensed image:

  • as part of a trademark or logo,
  • as part of a design-template application intended for resale, such as website templates, business-card templates, electronic greeting-card templates, or “on demand” products, such as postcards, mugs, T-shirts, and hats (you can create T-shirts and such for promotional uses, but not for sale),
  • in a manner that is pornographic, obscene, immoral, infringing, defamatory or libelous, or that would be reasonably likely to bring any person or property reflected in the image into disrepute; or be in any way unflattering or offensive. Use your common sense here. If you would not want a picture of you, your sister, your mother, or your child manipulated a certain way, then don’t do it, and
  • in any manner that looks as if the model or person is endorsing the product, unless you say it is a model.

Some sites permit you to use the image an unlimited number of times. Others set a limit of 249,999 or 499,999 printed images and unlimited Internet images. If you distribute over 249,999 printed copies of your book, bookmarks, postcards, and other materials, then you need to buy an extended license. A quarter million copies? I hope every self-publishing author has that problem!

You cannot sell, transfer, or permit someone else to use the licensed image, other than someone you hire to use the image for your benefit, such as a website or cover designer.

Be careful about using stock images on social media sites. Even if you pay for a license, if you post that image on Facebook, and Facebook turns around and uses that image in its advertising, your license could be terminated. Honestly, I do not know how this will be monitored and enforced, especially since social media sites frequently change their privacy and reposting rules. But it is part of the typical stock image license.

Getty Images recently announced it was making over 35 million images available for free for editorial, noncommercial purposes, with strings attached. The images must be imbedded, which means they will appear with the Getty logo and other advertising content. Also, Getty may remove the photo from your site at any time, so I would not rely upon these free images for anything important.

What to learn more about stock images, and other options such as images available under a Creative Commons license, keep an eye on this blog or check out my new book, Self-Publisher’s Legal Handbook.

Any questions or suggestions, please share them in Comments.

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2 responses to “Stock Images; A Little Money Goes A Long Way”

  1. Great blog but I am curious about one thing. How were you able to use the image you purchased as the cover for your book. I presume you sell the book and the license options you listed do not allow for resale of the image. I am in the same boat myself. I am trying to find an image to use as logo on software that I am developing. Did you purchase exlusive rights or am I somehow misreading this? Thanks

    • Mike, you need to look at the terms of the license for the stock image site. Most permit you to use their images in and on books, but may place a limit on the number of copies. These limits are high, between 249,999 and 499,999. Wouldn’t it be nice to hit that limit? And my rights are non-exclusive, which is one of the problems with using stock images.
      Most stock image companies do not permit their images to be used as logos or trademarks or on merchandise. Some might be open to it. If you find the image you want, contact the stock image company. You might be able to work something out with them, although I doubt it will be exclusive. You could probably hire a freelancer to create a logo for you for a lot less.

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