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The Restrictions in Stock Image Licenses Illustrators and Designers Need to Know

Microstock websites – websites that purvey low-cost photos, illustrations, and icons – have become a standard image source for designers with small budgets and undiscriminating clients. Illustrators have also used microstock, either in the creation of collage or montaged imagery, or as reference material for illustrations. However, both designers and illustrators are cautioned to read through the licenses employed by microstock sites. The low fees and “royalty free” label extended by microstock sites do not translate to unlimited use of their images.

The terms of use of six microstock sites reviewed for this article – Thinkstock, Shutterstock, Getty, iStockPhoto, Dreamstime, and 123RF – all clearly stipulate that their licensed imagery cannot be used in the creation of logos, service marks, or trademarks. The language used to define the restriction varies slightly from site to site. Getty Images implies that an exception to the restriction can be requested in writing. Dreamstime restricts the use of their images in the creation of trademarks, but not logos. The remaining four sites are unambiguous in prohibiting the use of their licensed image in logo creation.

Restrictions which would affect illustrators seeking to use stock imagery as source material are not always as clearly spelled out. The license agreement for Getty Images is an exception; it states: “Licensee may not falsely represent, expressly or impliedly, that Licensee is the original creator of a visual work that derives a substantial part of its artistic components from the Licensed Material.” Of the licenses reviewed, only iStockphoto’s license includes similar language to Getty’s, but the other terms do restrict the reselling of their images. Since the authors of the microstock images retain the copyrights, one can reasonably surmise that an illustration based on a stock image may not be copyrightable.  A safer course of action for illustrators is to use source material that is clearly in the public domain.

There is a downside to using microstock sites in general. Much of the imagery uploaded to the sites is trite, stereotypical, or simply poorly executed. (Stock photos were beautifully lampooned by the fake images created to mark the release of the film, “Unfinished Business.”) Microstock is also blamed for devaluing the illustration and photography professions by using an unsustainable business model that can’t support professionals.

The license agreements for the stock images sites are:
123RF
Dreamstime
Getty Images
iStockPhoto
Shutterstock
Thinkstock

Right: highlighted portions of the Getty, iStockphoto, and Dreamstime licenses.

iStock Photo Terms of Use
Terms of Use by Dreamstime


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