Whether you’re a musician, artist, blogger or business owner, you’ve probably come across the term “royalty free” before. If you’re like most people, you probably assumed that the material was free to use. Confusing as the term may be, royalty free does not mean that the material is free.
What Does Royalty Free Mean?
First thing’s first, let’s talk about what royalties are. A royalty is a way to earn income from copyrighted work. This may be an image, music or any other type of intellectual property. Recording artists, for example, earn royalties from CD sales. Each time a CD is sold, they earn income.
These are Rights Managed Royalties, and they tend to be very specific regarding:
- Where the material is used
- How often the material is used
- The type of usage
When images are rights managed, they have a specific, detailed history as to who the image was licensed to, what the purpose of the image was, where it was used, how often and for how long.
When material is royalty free, however, the content is free to use once a license is secured. Typically, there’s a fee to secure the license, but once it’s obtained, the material is generally free to use in perpetuity without having to pay any additional royalty fees.
Royalty Free in Photography and Illustration
The term royalty free is often associated with images. Stock photo sites, in particular, offer these types of images. Most offer a subscription-based service that allows users to pay for an image and use it in multiple projects without having to pay additional royalties.
Usage of Royalty Free Material
Although there are no royalties charged, royalty free agreements tend to be very specific as far as usage is concerned. For instance, there may be certain stipulations, such as:
- The material can’t be used to create another commercial work that will be sold.
- The material can’t be transformed in any way. In other words, you can only use the material “as is”.
- The material can only be used in certain places.
Oftentimes, the copyright holder will supply a list of how and where the material can be used. In most cases, royalty free material can be used on websites and in multimedia presentations, but they may also allow usage on commercial material, such as business cards, packing labels, billboards, restaurant decorations, trade show displays and more.
Royalty Free vs. Copyright Free
It’s easy to assume that once you obtain the license to royalty free material that you can do whatever you please with it. This is not always the case. Even if you’re allowed to modify or change the material, you still do not own copyright of it. Let’s say, for example, you manipulate a royalty free image. The original copyright holder still retains full copyright of that image even though you’ve manipulated it.
Material is only copyright free if the copyright has expired, or the copyright holder has transferred or given up their rights to the property. And when a copyright holder decides to license their material, they do not give up their copyright when doing so.
Works that are in the public domain are also considered copyright free. These include images created by the United States government. There are also many credible websites that offer public domain images.
It’s important to remember that royalty free is not the same thing as copyright free. It’s also important to remember that just because material is in the public view, it is not necessarily in public domain. Royalty free material simply means that you pay for the initial license, and are then free from paying any additional royalties in the future.