DAM principles for stock photography

Know your digital content rights

Images on Ipad

Stock photography encompasses ready-to-use imagery such as photos, illustrations, graphics, icons, etc. that can be licensed to use for any number of purposes. Common creative business use includes marketing and advertising, blogs and newsletters, business presentations, training and web design.

Stock images are available through a number of online services. Some of the major stock photography companies include:

  • Getty Images, which owns iStock
  • Shutterstock
  • Adobe Stock
  • Dreamstime

In addition, a growing number of sites are available that offer no-cost, crowdsourced images. These include:

  • Unsplash
  • Pixabay
  • Burst by Shopify
  • Gratisography

Whether you use pay sites, free sites or some combination, it’s important to know that all stock photos are protected by copyright laws and that you are being granted a license only to use the images, and in most cases with restrictions; you do not own them.

Thanks to the volume and diversity of images available and the cost-effectiveness, stock licensing has become a popular way to obtain imagery. Yet as companies acquire stock images, often they are mismanaged and misused—rights change or expire. Stock acquired assets may be comingled with images you own outright. There may be no accountability or responsibility and managing this information effectively can be a challenge.

A good DAM (digital asset management) system will ensure you are managing your stock photos properly. Whether you’ve implemented DAM software, partnered with a SaaS solution provider or you’re using more of a homegrown hybrid approach, you’ll want optimize how you manage your assets and their rights information to reduce your risk for liability and legal action by adhering to all licensing and copyright requirements.

To that end, make sure you are addressing the following questions for proper stock asset management.

Where did I get it?

Simple question but one that can get hard to answer if you aren’t careful with your assets when they are added to your DAM ecosystem.  The difficulty can compound as it’s used over and over after it’s in your DAM.  It’s important upon initial acquisition and entry to capture exactly where you acquired the image(s) from, when and what exactly were the original terms, restrictions and other limitations (if any) of the license?  It’s important to keep this information especially if you need to re-use, extend or re-license from the original provider.

How can the image be used?

Basically, you are buying (licensing) usage of an image for a specific time and usage and the rate to do so will vary widely depending on the specifics of your usage and term.  An image used for a one-time, non-exclusive, in-house presentation will be licensed for less than if the same image is to be used in an exclusive, nationwide advertising campaign or other widely distributed marketing materials.

In general, there are three primary license types:

  1. Royalty Free (RF) license

The “free” in Royalty Free does not mean free of charge; it means you pay only the initial license fee, with no further royalties owed to the creator or the agency. Royalty Free licensing is based on a one-time, flat-rate fee. Other than no-cost, crowd sourced stock photo sites like the ones referenced at the beginning of this article or something known as the Creative Commons license, RF is the most affordable stock photo license option. Because it’s inexpensive, RF is a popular choice for usage like adding images to blog posts.

The downside of RF licensing is that RF photos are non-exclusive. Anyone can purchase and use the same images. RF licensing is not suitable for branding or other instances where you want to be unique, yet not go all the way to investing the time and cost of custom photography.

  1. Extended / enhanced license

This license type is an extension or enhancement of Royalty Free, granting some uses beyond those that are restricted or prohibited by a standard RF license. Not all stock photo providers offer extended or enhanced licensing, and offers may vary, so make sure to read the fine print.

Enhancements may include the right to increase or limit reproductions or to use the image for merchandising or other methods of distribution. The extended license is costlier, but it can fill some of the gaps between RF and RM licensing, which will be covered next.

  1. Rights-managed (RM) license

Rights-managed licensing offers exclusive usage, giving you the rights to use an image in a certain way, with some restrictions like time, reproduction or geographical use. When you want exclusivity for purposes like branding without resorting to custom photography, and you’re willing to give up some control, RM can be a suitable choice. You will need to establish more stringent access and use requirements for RM images, to protect your branding and to ensure users don’t violate RM licensing restrictions and place your organization at legal risk.

images on laptop

Licensing fine print

It’s important to remember that none of the licensing options give you ownership of the image. These licenses simply give you the right to use the photo. The photographer or creator retains all ownership and copyrights, with the stock provider being the agent. Also, as agents, the stock providers also protect their rights. It’s important to capture and manage this information as these assets enter your DAM ecosystem and it’s important that you have your legal advisors involved to ensure you understand all agency terms and clauses and to monitor and update them accordingly, as they do change.

Finally, sensitive use is governed across most license types and controlled by most agencies and photographers. This has become a growing concern with easy manipulation and editing of digital photos using Adobe Photoshop or other software. Sensitive use includes using the image in adult-related content, or for illegal and questionable practices such as discriminatory use or inciting violence or hate. And sensitive use extends to people that appear in the photo, prohibiting use that portrays them in potentially offensive ways or depicts them directly endorsing a product or service.

Setting permission levels in your DAM

Setting permission levels in your DAM and ensuring these images are not openly available to anyone inside or outside the organization who shouldn’t be able to see / use or otherwise affect an asset is a top priority. It’s important to determine who will have access and what levels, managing these DAM user rights are an important safeguard to limit potential misuse and liability.  For example, you may set control so that users can only view the images, and that permission must be requested in each instance for downloading and usage. User access should be based on the person’s role, the licensing of each image and any other requirements. Without control of user access, the organization is open to the risks of individual decisions and actions, like sharing a restricted image on social media in a post that goes viral.

Metadata to manage your collection

The answer to this question, in a word, is metadata. Yes, you need technology, but whether it’s a sophisticated DAM system or simply storing images on an internal network drive or using any number of cloud-based storage option, metadata is the rights management driver.

The base definition of metadata is data about the data, or in this case, background and contextual information about the assets. The metadata for digital photo assets might include the name of the stock photo agency, the photographer or image owner, a description, keywords or tags to help users find images based on specific needs or topics, license details and license expiration dates.

Being able to capture rights info in DAM that can then be used to succinctly communicate that rights metadata to users provides a clear understanding to all on the range of availability and / or limits to use without undermining or interfering with the creative process.

Metadata creation and management is something that LAC Group has extensive experience in; we invite you to search on “metadata” in the search bar at the bottom of our website to explore this topic further. Or check out our ongoing series, Metadata for mere mortals, delivered by one of our expert librarians.

Stock imagery is an easy and cost-effective way to obtain digital images as well as other types of stock content like music and illustrations. Sound DAM principles to manage and control all license, copyright, usage, terms and limitations metadata allows you to more effectively leverage your stock assets without taking advantage of creators and agencies and; most importantly; without exposing your organization to unnecessary risk and liability.

Phil Spiegel

Phil Spiegel

Phil Spiegel is Senior Director of Content Management Operations at LAC Group. Phil delivers insights and advice based on more than 20 years of media archive and asset management experience gained from companies like National Geographic Television, Corbis Motion, Image Bank and Getty Images.
Phil Spiegel

Latest posts by Phil Spiegel (see all)