Royalty free or copyright free? Are they the same?

Quick question. What does royalty free mean? Does it mean copyright free? Nope.

Royalty free generally means that you pay a one-time fee in exchange for the right to use a photograph (or some other work protected by copyright, patent, or trademark) according to agreed upon terms, with no ongoing license fees due for further use. It does not mean that the work is copyright free. That’s a misconception.

Copyright free means just what it says — a copyright free work is not protected by copyright. While you might have to pay a fee to obtain a copy of the work, your use will not be restricted unless you’ve agreed that it will be (in an enforceable contract). The term “copyright free” is often used, mistakenly, where copyrighted works are licensed to the public for free ... but with some restrictions on use.

Free photos, not royalty free photos

Since this web site is about public domain works I don’t want to go off on a tangent. (Well, not a very big tangent, anyway.) That said, here’s a short list of 8 free photo sites. Not royalty free — free. (But not copyright free. You got that, right?)

I’ve checked out their license terms and conditions for you and summarized some of the important points here. (Which doesn’t mean you shouldn’t read the license terms yourself!)

Common Content
Advert collage photo

Photo by Keith Martin (

What’s there: An open catalog of Creative Commons licensed content (includes more than photos, by the way). Click on the Photographs category and peruse the resulting list. Then either do a keyword search or just click through to whatever looks interesting — you’ll land on a summary page that includes the applicable license terms. If they suit how you want to use the photo(s), go have a look.

Use/Restrictions: License terms will vary from creator to creator. So be sure to pay attention to the terms for any work you want to use. Creative Commons doesn’t mean public domain!

Copyright Free Photos

What’s there: This site offers “copyright free” photos in categories such as animals, technology, buildings, nature, etc.

Use/Restrictions: You may use the photos any way you wish except as part of a photo library of your own (either online or offline). Although the site states that the photos are “copyright (royalty) free” ... the use limitation shows that the owner intends to grant a license, not give up copyright. If the photos were truly free of copyright, you could do whatever you liked with them. Be careful when you read language like this.

DHD Multimedia Gallery
Algerian building

Maryam Yahyavi/DHD Multimedia Gallery

What’s there: Gallery of original stock photography (site also has clip-art, sounds, and video clips). Many of the photos are by amateurs, but don’t let that stop you from checking them out. As the site owners put it, “a little cropping and editing could lead to interesting results.”

Use/Restrictions: You may make personal or commercial use of the photos, provided you don’t redistribute or sell them, or pass them off as your own, and do give credit to the author (including in derivative works). Requested form of credit (with a link to the site’s home page, if possible): Author Name/DHD Multimedia Gallery. Also, you must not use the photos in any way that would harm or embarrass the authors, and you’re liable for any problems arising from your use. Last, the site’s owners ask you to contribute work of your own to the web, under similar terms, if and when you can. I hope you do.

Starry Night detail

What’s there: Large collection of high resolution photos (objects, places, animals, etc.) and textures (metals, wood, rock, etc.) for free download. Note that the images here are meant to be used as raw material for your own creative work (edited or not); they’re not meant to be standalone stock photos. One of the coolest things about the site is its abstract search function — use this when you don’t have a specific image in mind, but you know what kind of image you want.

Use/Restrictions: The photos may be used in personal and commercial works. You may also redistribute or sell their images and textures (altered or unaltered) as part of printed work. But you may not resell or redistribute the photos themselves, or use them to compete directly with Image*After. Note: The artists who donated the images to the site agreed to give up their rights to the images, implying that those rights were theirs to give away. If that turns out not to be the case in a given instance, be aware that the site’s owners and contributors have disclaimed all liability.

Morgue File

What’s there: Large collection of free high resolution stock photos and reference images contributed by many artists.

Use/Restrictions: The photos are free to use, including commercially, without permission or credit to the photographer. But note that you may not distribute or sell any photo on a standalone basis (or claim it as your own work), or use any photo in an offensive, indecent or objectionable manner (including libelous or defamatory uses). You also may not download the whole collection, or a substantial part of it, without morgueFile’s prior written consent, or use the photos to compete against morgueFile. Important: You’re responsible for the content of any photos you use — meaning that if a photo includes people or property you must get appropriate permissions.


What’s there: A growing repository of creative works from amateurs and professionals (not just photos, but video, music, audio clips, and other personal media). It’s like the Internet Archive for the general public — in fact, the Internet Archive provides free bandwidth and storage for the site.

Use/Restrictions: Creative Commons licenses prevail here, but some works are protected by traditional copyright. Your use of a particular work will depend on how it’s licensed (or not, as the case may be).


What’s there: Over 180,000 stock photos, in fifteen categories from “abstract” to “world.”

Use/Restrictions: The photos are free to use for personal or commercial work as long as you obey the restrictions for each photo you download. Specific restrictions are listed with each image. If you look directly under the photo you’ll see one of the following:

  • Standard restrictions apply.
  • Standard restrictions apply and the photographer must be notified when using the photo for any public work.
  • Standard restrictions apply and the photographer must be notified and credited when using the photo for any public work.
  • Written permission is needed from the photographer before using the photo for any public work.

Note: You can use the advanced search to find unrestricted photos. Just choose No in the Restricted OK box. Although “unrestricted” seems to mean that the standard license applies.

Speaking of the standard license ... it allows you to use the photos for all sorts of purposes, from web sites and videos to magazines and books, but you must not sell or distribute the photos in any way. (In other words, don’t slap an image on a Cafepress t-shirt or coffee mug without getting written permission from the photographer.) Some other important points of the license are:

  • Don’t use the photos in trademarks, service marks, or logos.
  • You’re responsible for any copyright violations.
  • The photos are not guaranteed to be free and clear of copyright or other rights. (Some photos may need a model release or property release, for example.)

Since you assume the risk of using the photos, be sure to read the license terms yourself (ask a lawyer for help if you need it) ... and contact the photographer with any questions or concerns.