Photo Licensing Guide: Rights Managed vs Royalty Free

The stock photography industry has its share of jargon, and if you’re new to licensing images for commercial use or publication it’s worth being aware of some of the terminology. A very important distinction when you’re licensing a photo is whether that license is rights-managed (RM) or royalty-free (RF). These labels are used by Arcangel and most major stock libraries and agencies

Here’s a brief explanation!


Rights-managed images are licensed for specific terms of use. You’ll be required to specify exactly how, where and for how long you intend to use the image. Each new use of an image must be licensed separately. Your license would have a fixed term, and if you wished to continue using the image beyond that, you must renew or extend your license.

Images that are rights-managed may also have the option of being licensed exclusively for a given industry and/or territory, ensuring that nobody else in the same sector can license the same image. 

The fees for RM images are calculated on the scope of usage. Costs will therefore increase for longer license terms, use in multiple formats, exclusive rights, and more territories being included.



Royalty-free images are licensed for a fixed one-off fee covering all usages. Once purchased, you can use the image any number of times in any medium, for an indefinite period.

While the license terms are open-ended there may still be some restrictions on usage, for example in products for retail or for very high print runs.

RF images cannot be licensed exclusively and the same image may be available from more than one image library.

The fees for RF images are calculated based on file size. Smaller file sizes will be suitable for online and digital projects. Printed projects will require higher file sizes which will have a higher cost.


Frequently-asked questions…

  • So royalty-free images aren’t free to use? No – this is a common misunderstanding! Royalty-free means you only need to pay once, as opposed to paying a fee for each use of an image. 
  • Are RF images cheaper? Often, but not always! RF fees are fixed regardless of the usage, so they will generally be more affordable for bigger projects. However, if you license an RM image for a small project it may have a lower up-front cost.
  • Are RM images better quality? Premium images by top photographers will usually be RM, especially if the image has high production costs like elaborate sets and costumes. That said, there are many high-quality RF images available as well!
  • Can I choose whether to purchase an RM or RF license? No – the type of license is fixed and will be determined by the stock library’s contract with the photographer.

If you have any further questions about licensing, our sales team would be happy to assist.