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Licensing Stock Media: Legally Using Images, Video and Audio


Quality media assets like stock photos, videos, illustrations and audio clips are essential for great digital content and marketing. But most media requires licensing for legal use. Understanding stock media licensing empowers creators to access these resources properly.

This guide covers types of stock media, major licensing considerations, finding licensed assets, best practices using stock media, and issues to watch out for. It provides a thorough framework for legally and ethically leveraging stock photos, footage, audio and other media assets.

Types of Stock Media You Can License

Many varieties of media assets are available via stock licensing. Common types include:

Stock Photography

Stock photos are pre-shot images licensed for reuse. Categories include lifestyle, business, nature, objects, textures, backgrounds, places, people. High demand asset class.

Example providers: Getty Images, Adobe Stock, Shutterstock, iStock

Stock Video Footage

Pre-recorded video clips covering nature, people, technology, business, slow motion, timelapses, backgrounds. Usually priced per clip or subscription.

Example providers: Storyblocks, Pond5, Videvo, Coverr

Vector Illustrations & Graphics

Stylized drawings, icons, templates, infographics, patterns, textures as vector graphics that can be resized without quality loss.

Example providers: Adobe Stock, Freepik, Vecteezy, Pikisuperstar

3D Models & Renderings

3D model assets like people, objects, buildings, technology, animals that can be customized, animated and rendered.

Example providers: Adobe Stock, Turbosquid, CGTrader, Sketchfab

Stock Audio & Music

Pre-recorded audio clips, loops, tracks, and songs licensed for use in videos, podcasts, apps.

Example providers: Epidemic Sound, Storyblocks, Envato Elements, Pond5

Editorial Images

Images of newsworthy events, personalities, places licensed for use in journalism, documentaries, educational content.

Example providers: AP Images, Getty Images, Alamy

Today’s creators have access to a huge range of stock media assets to license affordably on flexible terms.

Key Licensing Options for Stock Media

Stock media allows you to legally access high quality assets without producing everything yourself. Photographers, videographers, musicians and artists earn income from licensing their work. Different licensing models provide varying degrees of flexibility and approvals required.

Rights-Managed (RM) Licenses

Rights-managed licenses provide paid exclusive rights to use media for a defined purpose like a marketing campaign or film. Prices based on intended reach. More oversight required.

Royalty-Free (RF) Licenses

Royalty-free licenses allow use of media virtually anywhere perpetually after single flat fee purchase. No limits on projects, print runs, audience size. More freedom.

Subscription Plans

Many providers offer monthly/annual subscriptions for unlimited downloads of some or all RF assets during membership. Great for frequent ongoing media needs.

Editorial Licenses

Separate editorial licenses permit using stock media strictly for editorial purposes like news, commentary, teaching/education. Not for advertising or promotional use without further licensing.

Public Domain & Creative Commons

Some stock photos, videos and music are in the public domain or licensed under Creative Commons. These can be used completely freely with attribution.

Choosing the right licensing approach depends on your specific media needs, budget and intended use. Mixing subscription access with à la carte purchases for specialized assets is popular.

Key Licensing Criteria to Understand

When purchasing stock media licenses, you agree to certain terms of use. Here are key licensing criteria to evaluate:

Media Types & Elements Included

What formats are included – digital, print, web, etc.? Can you use edited versions? Any restrictions on cropping, color changes, text overlays?

Length of License Term

Rights-managed licenses spell out fixed term of usage rights. Royalty-free and subscriptions often permit perpetual use after purchase.

Commercial or Editorial Use

License must expressly permit commercial use if for advertising, promotions, merchandising, etc. Editorial licenses limit usage to news, commentary, educational settings only.

Distribution Channels

Does license allow using media on website, social posts, YouTube, TV, billboards? Any geographic or language restrictions?

Number of Projects/Applications

Rights-managed licenses may limit number of projects media can be used in. Royalty-free licenses typically place no limits on projects.

Audience Size Restrictions

Rights-managed licenses often limit audience size for broadcast or publications. Royalty-free usually unrestricted.

Ability to Modify/Alter Media

What edits, customizations, adaptations are allowed? Can you crop, resize, change colors, overlay text, etc?.

Model & Property Releases

Releases showing subjects and properties consented to filming are critical for license validity if used in ways requiring releases.

Attribution Requirements

Licenses normally require citing name of media creator and source when used. Failure to attribute risks copyright infringement.

Evaluating these key variables ensures the license acquired gives sufficient rights for your intended usages without restrictive surprises.

Finding Legal Stock Media to License

Many stock media marketplaces exist making it fairly easy to find assets to license affordably. Here are good places to search:

Dedicated Stock Media Marketplaces

Large stock agencies like Getty Images, Adobe Stock, Shutterstock, Pond5, Storyblocks offer photos, videos, audio tracks, illustrations in one place. Quality and choice benefits a one-stop search.

Specialized Media Sites

More niche sites focus on specific media types like audio, vector graphics, 3D models. Search a genre specialized site directly if you know the format needed.

Social Creative Communities

Sites like Behance, Dribbble, DeviantArt allow designers, animators, artists to share portfolio pieces that sometimes can be licensed.

Public Domain & CC Sites

Museums, Wikipedia Commons, Pexels host media in the public domain or licensed via Creative Commons for completely free use.

Destination Sites

Travel sites, local tourism agencies, hotels and restaurants often make area photos and videos easy to license for promotional use.

Individual Creator Pages

Photographer portfolio sites, musician profiles, animator reels let you license directly from artists. May get bespoke assets not on major platforms.

Online Marketplaces

Large online retailers like eBay, Etsy enable buyers to license unique arts & crafts, custom drawings, printed designs from makers selling directly.

With so many stock media options now, focus on reputable licensed sources that provide creator attribution and protections against misuse.

Best Practices Using Stock Media

When licensing stock photos, videos, audio tracks, vectors and illustrations, following best practices ensures legal and ethical use:

Review License Terms Thoroughly

Never skim licenses. Read carefully to ensure media rights purchased sufficiently cover your intended uses across projects, media types, audience reach, etc.

Download Original High-Resolution Files

Use the highest resolution versions available to have flexibility for large prints, zooming in, cropping, quality lossless editing. Avoid artifacts or pixelation.

Attribute Media Creators

Credit photographer, videographer, artist or agency prominently near usage. Check license for exact required wording. Failing to attribute risks copyright infringement.

Monitor Usage Volume

If license limits number of projects or impressions, track use carefully not to exceed limits which would require purchasing additional rights.

Proactively Renew Licenses

For rights-managed licenses with defined terms, calendar reminders ensure you renew usage rights prior to expiration if project remains ongoing.

Follow Commercial/Editorial Boundaries

Carefully stick to editorial use only for media licensed as such. Never commercially use editorial media without further licensing.

Store Licenses & Invoices

Keep indefinitely for audit purposes. Maintain clear records of media purchases, invoices, specific assets acquired in a digital asset management system.

Double Check Contractors & Partners

Ensure those you hand off licensed media to for production use it compliantly as per license terms. Avoid assumptions.

Following sound stock media practices reduces risks and liability associated with licensed assets, while building positive relationships with creative providers.

Pitfalls and Legal Risks to Avoid

Licensing stock media also comes with hazards if not treated carefully:

Licensing the Wrong Media Type

Accidentally purchasing an editorial license for a commercial marketing purpose, or rights-managed license where royalty-free suffices, results in unpermitted use.

Relying on Verbal Licenses

Without written license documentation, you lack legal proof of usage rights granted. Always obtain media licenses in writing.

Missing Model & Property Releases

If required for your project, failing to verify releases are included risks litigation from identifiable people/property owners filmed without consent.

Exceeding License Usage Limits

Printing more hard copies than permitted in license, or running ads with media after license term expires leaves you unprotected legally.

Failing to Attribute Properly

Not crediting the creator and stock source, or misattributing media constitutes copyright infringement with damages up to $150,000 per image.

Allowing Reuse by Third Parties

Sub-licensing or sharing licensed stock media with partners, clients, contractors, etc. without clearly defined terms may exceed license scope.

With licensed assets, it’s critical to stay within defined usage terms. Being lax greatly elevates risk of copyright disputes, fines and reputation damage.

Special Considerations for Certain Media Types

While core licensing concepts are similar across media forms, there are some special considerations for certain asset types:

Stock Video Footage

  • Check for implied endorsements of brands/products shown that your usage doesn’t insinuate
  • Look for identifiable people who may require appearance releases for your project
  • Account for large file sizes and editing complexity

3D Models & Renderings

  • Ensure adaptations like new textures, lighting, renders are permitted
  • Watch for 3D representations of trademarked brand properties
  • Rendering files suitable for your project pipeline may require extra effort

Vector Illustrations & Graphics

  • Vector resizing can’t compensate for poor quality to begin with
  • Look for political or offensive embedded messages hidden in some vectors
  • Remember vectors don’t capture brand identities/logos without releases

Stock Music & Audio

  • Confirm commercial synchronization usage permission if over video/media
  • Check length, loops, instruments, quality suit your project
  • Listen for music that conjures branding like “jingle” melodies

Each media type poses unique considerations for legally sound licensing. Do diligence upfront to get the usage rights and quality needed.

Alternate Approaches Beyond Stock Media Licensing

While stock media licensing provides lots of advantages, some alternatives exist:

Produce Original Media

Creating your own photos, videos, music in-house gives you full rights and aligned aesthetics. Potentially more expensive.

Commission Media

Hiring creators to produce custom media specially for your brand retains IP ownership. More investment upfront.

Use Non-Licensed Platforms with Care

User-generated platforms like Unsplash offer free photos, but limited legal protections. Evaluate risks.

Repurpose Existing Media

Adapt existing marketing images and footage for new formats and content needs legally. Cost-effective.

Utilize Public Domain Works

For historical or nostalgic media needs, public domain works have no licensing limitations. Quality varies.

Lean on Iconography + Illustrations

Creating original icons, logos and illustrations conveys messaging without relying on stock media.

No single best approach. Often prudent to combine licensed stock media along with original and owned sources for optimal quality, control and cost.


Stock media assets bring immense value through conveying messages creatively while allowing legal use. When producers properly license media elements like photos, videos, vectors, 3D models and audio tracks, they can elevate content affordably. Creators should research stock options for their needs, read licenses carefully, follow best practices, and steer clear of unlicensed media sources to mitigate legal risks. With millions of media works available via stock licensing today, it has never been easier to legally access diverse high quality assets to take content to the next level.


By Dani Davis

Dani Davis is the pen name of the writer of this blog with more 15 years of constant experience in Content marketing and informatics product, e-commerce niche.

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