Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The difference between "copyright free" and "royalty free"

Given that at least part of the controversy surrounding the painting which was awarded the American Watercolour Society Gold Medal this year concerns copyright I thought it might be helpful to outline the difference between "copyright free" and "royalty free" - as this seems to be something people get confused about.

What is copyright?

I'm not going to try and define copyright as such - as meaning varies depending on which country's laws prevail over the work in question. You can find out more about copyright and access the different websites providing legal definitions in my information site Copyright and Orphan Artworks - Resources for Artists

For the purposes of this post, the wikipedia summary will suffice.
Copyright is a form of intellectual property which gives the creator of an original work exclusive rights for a certain time period in relation to that work, including its publication, distribution and adaptation; after which time the work is said to enter the public domain. Copyright applies to any expressible form of an idea or information that is substantive and discrete. Some jurisdictions also recognise "moral rights" of the creator of a work, such as the right to be credited for the work
Wikpedia - copyright
Copyright law gives the owner the right to prevent others from copying, creating derivative works, or publicly performing their works. This is why you cannot use and adapt an image to create a derivative work. You can only do this if you get the permission of the copyright owner.

What is a royalty?

A royalty is a way of earning revenue income from a copyrighted work.
Artists can licence reproductions of their work. Most charge a fee as a royalty payment. (That's why musicians and authors can earn a lot of their income from royalties).

Rights Managed Royalties tend to be very specific as to, for example:
  • type of use
  • location of use
  • frequency of use
As a result images which are rights managed have a very specific history as to who the image has been licenced to, for what purpose, in which country and for how often and how long.

What is royalty free?
Royalty Free refers to a type of contract between a two entities (the licensor and licensee), that is employed when licensing the rights to use content, such as photographs. The term Royalty Free means that once the content is licensed under a set of guidelines, the licensee is normally free to use it in perpetuity without paying additional royalty charges.
Wikipedia - Royalty-free
Royalty free means that no royalty is charged. However, agreements which provide for a work to be royalty free tend to be very specific as to their use. For example, conditions of use may stipulate
  • that the work is not transformed in any way ie that it is used "as is".
  • that the work cannot be used to create another commercial work for sale.
  • the places where the image can be used.
Royalty free licences do not maintain a history as to use.

Shutterstock - which had images of the photographs at the centre of the AWS controversy - provides royalty free images. This is how Shutterstock defines royalty free
What does 'royalty-free' mean?
“Royalty-free” is a type of a stock photo license that provides for the unlimited use of a photo in any media defined in the licensing terms. “Royalty-free” is the opposite of “rights-managed.” A rights-managed photo needs a specific license stating the audience and material surrounding the photo. All the photos on Shutterstock are royalty-free and so do not require an individual license. All photos are bound by one or both of the two types of licensing agreements.
Shutterstock FAQs
It also states
If I modify an image, can I claim copyright to that image?
You may modify an image and use it, however, you may not claim copyright to that image. Shutterstock and its suppliers continues to own all images, whether or not they have been modified.
Shutterstock - FAQs
Plus it stipulates how and where its royalty free images can be used
Where can I use Shutterstock photos?
According to our Licensing Terms you may use the photos in or on
  • Web sites
  • Multimedia presentations
  • displays for trade shows
  • billboards/banners
  • packaging/labels
  • Broadcast video
  • On business letterhead
  • Brochures
  • Business cards
  • Office decoration
  • Decoration for restaurants
  • Public areas
  • Decoration in stores
  • And many other uses outlined in our Standard and Enhanced Licensing Terms
Shutterstock - FAQS
The important thing to note is that licensing reproduction for a specific use does NOT mean that copyright no longer applies or that the work is copyright free.

Anybody reading all the small print contained in the Shutterstock FAQs will easily conclude that these images are not suitable subjects for images being entered in a painting competition where the artist needs to assert that the painting is original.

What is copyright free?

A work no longer has a copyright if the copyright has expired or because the copyright holder has specifically given up or transferred some or all rights to the property in question. Works in the public domain are copyright free. Note however that the owner does NOT give up copyright when they licence reproduction subject to payment of royalties or not. Thus:
  • A royalty free image is NOT the same as a copyright free image.
  • Being on public view is NOT the same as being in the public domain.
Note also that Wikipedia has a completely inane and unhelpful definition of copyright free!

If you know of any other blog posts which comment on the distinction between copyright free and royalty free please let me know as I'm adding good ones into my information site.



  1. Hard to add anything to your research. I won't attempt the legalese, but two thoughts come to mind.

    Often with Shutterstock types of operations, one still must pay to use, although the royalties are free. A one-time use or a site subscription is the satisfactory way to use a photo here.

    That said, it doesn't look well when one posts an image with a big "Shutterstock" watermark visible on it! Having said that, I do recall one of the videos I posted (not my own) had a slide with that present.

    Here is another interesting note - and I mentioned it the other day at my blog. If using a gif, such as an animated one, have the rights from the web host to do so. Imagine every time someone opens your blog and views that animation, the other site is getting your traffic, too. In other words, you are using their host services!

  2. Good point about the fee

    I guess the other thing worth highlighting is that just because you've paid a fee it still doesn't mean you've bought the copyright - or even sole or limited use of an image.

  3. SUCH a needed post! Thanks. (This topic is one where my print publishing background comes in handy.)

    Just yesterday I was asking on Twitter if anyone could recommend some good royalty-free commercial contemporary clip art. Most recommendations were about free images online (which are generally only for personal use only).

    Too many artists don't understand that royalty free doesn't equal payment free. Heck, the one-off payment could even be huge! You could license an image of your artwork for example for thousands of dollars for a specific use like printing calendars. Just means the buyer doesn't have to pay you for each calendar.

    Public domain is the next most misunderstood term in my experience. If I had a dollar for every artists who said something was in public domain because it was on the internet I'd be rich! ;)

  4. The AWS scandal provided me with a satisfactory half hour of work avoidance. I have to say I cannot believe the bare-faced cheek and/or stupidity of the artist concerned.

    On the other hand it drives me mad when companies whose logos are part of the urban scene use their corporate might to sue artists who include said logos in a piece of artwork. I feel that if a logo is imposed on me in my environment I should be entitled to reflect that environment realistically back in my artwork.

    I found some fascinating articles about copyright here http://www.fineartregistry.com/articles/legal_art-copyright.php

  5. So if i use a 1 royalty free sound for my project and the rest i make on my own. Can i sell it im super confused


COMMENTS HAVE BEEN CLOSED AGAIN because of too much spam.
My blog posts are always posted to my Making A Mark Facebook Page and you can comment there if you wish.

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.