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What does “Royalty Free” mean?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Black cats. This image can be licensed under many kinds of agreements. Make me an offer. The cats, however, are not for sale.

Here is one of my internet pet peeves.

Frequently, people upload images they’d like others to be able to use for free. Great!

But then, they label their generous gift to the world “Royalty Free — please take.” Ug. That’s not what Royalty Free means! Copyright and image licensing are complex enough without this mixup further stirring the soup. So:

Royalty Free does not mean Free.

Don’t let the Free mislead you. Royalty Free (hereafter, RF) means that after the initial permission is secured, usually through money, additional uses can be made without payment. RF is multiple use free of royalties. Pay once, put the photo on a t-shirt, upload it to your website, print out some fliers, get it tattooed on your forehead. It’s all clear! But you still had pay for it at the outset.

Conversely, if you are looking for free pictures and stumble on a site with images offered “Royalty Free”, RF does not mean you can take them!

Contrasted to RF is Rights-Managed (RM) use, where the creator and the user reach a more tightly controlled agreement regarding multiple uses. For example, a RM image appearing in the first edition of a textbook might need to be re-licensed for a fee in order to be cleared to appear in the second edition. RM is the traditional way for licensing intellectual property, and remains in use partly because the details of an explicit license contract lessens risk and makes legal departments happy.

Anyway, enough about contracts. What if you just want people to use your pictures for free? Instead of confusing everyone with your Free Royalty Free photos, I recommend perusing Creative Commons licenses. Tag your images with a CC-license whose terms you like. Or, if you are feeling especially generous, perhaps you ought just release your images into the public domain. Sounds scary, but that’s what NASA does.

Alex Wild About the Author: Alex Wild is an Illinois-based entomologist who studies the evolutionary history of ants. In 2003 he founded a photography business as an aesthetic complement to his scientific work, and his natural history photographs appear in numerous museums, books, and media outlets. Follow on Twitter @myrmecos.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. Jerzy New 4:31 am 01/11/2012

    Old saying: If 1 person in 100 breaks the law, this person is wrong, but if 90 people out of 100 break the law, the law is wrong.

    It just shows that the intellectual property law is wrong. It was tailored to make profits for a handful of big media and software corporations – but normal people don’t understand or follow it.

    Link to this
  2. 2. Alex Wild 10:22 am 01/11/2012

    Jerzy New- that’s a common perception, but I disagree.

    While big corporations make a lot of news for their attempts to alter IP laws in their favor, it is also true that 99.9% of all intellectual property owners aren’t big corporations. This isn’t a Big Corp vs. the Little Guy issue.

    The median income of a professional photographer in the US is only about $25,000/year. That’s only about 1/2 the median household income. Yet, photographers depend on IP laws to make their living, as they need to retain ownership of their works in order to be able to sell them. The bottom line is that a great deal more images of a great deal more things exist because IP laws allow photography to be a profession rather than a hobby.

    This is not a defense of the rather extreme extension of copyright long beyond the death of the owner, or the excessive prosecution of teenagers for downloading music for personal use. Rather, it’s an observation that IP laws do serve a positive purpose.

    Link to this
  3. 3. HBG_Dave 4:03 pm 01/12/2012

    Jersey New’s perception may not be precisely correct, but the last few decades of changes to copyright law do support his perception. Is there anything in the current trend towards extending copyright that benefits the individual photographer or even a clear understanding of IP rights?

    Have you seen the recent evil R (and equally evil D) bill that seeks to block US government agencies from publishing publicly available scientific research:
    http://the-scientist.com/2012/01/09/anti-open-access-rises-again/

    To me, the recent history of IP law seems clear: a bipartisan process of granting large corporations more and more control.

    Link to this
  4. 4. glueater 5:54 pm 01/12/2012

    I must agree with Alex on this one.

    There are industry professionals in all creative media production fields who invest heavily into their equipment, training, and time, not to mention are offering their skills and talents which have been honed over many years to create the media that we all consume.

    Lawyers get paid handsomely for their work. Why? Because it takes a lot of training and skills that most people are not equipped with. Does the opinion that legal advice should be free because the law affects everyone mean that lawyers shouldn’t get paid?

    I think IP laws are a bit over-complicated, yes, but necessary to protect the work of the creatives who produce valuable media. Just because we all want stuff for free doesn’t make the law wrong. Complicated laws aren’t really a bad thing either, they give rise to other industries. There is a whole slew of companies eg. http://www.productiontrax.com (who helps content creators license both Royalty Free Music and Stock Photos) out there that exist to make the licensing process easy and affordable for people who consume media, whether it’s photos, music, video, or anything else that a creative might create.

    Link to this
  5. 5. Alex Wild 7:17 pm 01/12/2012

    HBG_Dave,

    I absolutely agree. The recent public history of IP law is really bad. SOPA will be a disaster. The anti-open access bill is awful.

    What rights holders need is 1. enforcement of existing laws, and 2. a wiser business sense of when not to pursue the problem (like, refraining from suing a 14 year old for downloading pirated music to a personal computer).

    IP laws do serve a valid purpose. After all, about half of my own images would not exist if not for copyright laws allowing me to make a living from photography. I worry that overzealous rule-making on behalf of the mega-corporations will cause a backlash that weakens necessary protections for small rights-holders.

    Link to this

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