The Social Media Marketers Guide To Stock Media Sites and Licenses

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The rights to using stock content on social media can be confusing. How do you know what you can and can't do with the content you're using on social media? Unless you understand licensing, you'll need to be careful with how you use the content you've downloaded. 

In this guest post from Inner Hub member, Selena Durrant, we are diving into what you need to know about using stock media sites.

Disclaimer: This information should not be treated as legal advice. Always check with a lawyer if you have any concerns about licencing rights.

What is a licence?

A license is a sale of rights.

When you purchase a license agreement through iStock, for example, or pay your monthly Canva subscription, you're paying for permissions to use their stock media in a specific way. Some licenses allow you to use the content commercially if you follow a particular set of rules as set out in their license agreements.

Each stock media site has its own set of terms and conditions (T&Cs) outlining how its license agreement works.

Online design site, Canva provides stock media elements royalty-free and recently updated its T&Cs, to be more in line with other stock media sites.

What is a royalty?

A Royalty is a legally binding payment made to an individual or company for the ongoing use of their assets: images, music, graphics etc. When you buy (and use) Royalty-Free media (RF media), you're granted a license of use instead of paying a royalty to the owner.

But, not all royalty-free licenses are equal. Some work like a short-term rental agreement. You're only allowed to use the media for a specific length of time and, in some cases, for a specified reason.

Royalty-free does not mean copyright-free.

The copyright will always belong to the original creator. So, when the agreement expires, unless you've been able to track down the original creator to request a license extension, you will need to stop using the media.

A good habit is remembering to check the individual stock media sites' T&Cs before using their media. Some are happy for you to share RF media as part of a project or with another person (as long as that person doesn't take the image and uses it elsewhere and they follow the same T&Cs as you). However, some prohibit sharing altogether, which means only the license holder can use the media.

Standard RF media license features can be:

  • Non-transferable (meaning you can't share, gift, or resell the image. Only the buyer has the legal right to use it).
  • Non-exclusive (the media can be used by anyone who bought the license).
  • Allowed worldwide use (unless specified in the license agreement, there's no geographic limitation associated).
  • Perpetual (unless set in the license agreement, there's no time limitation).
  • Multiple-use (allows multiple uses of the image, be it print, digital, or other methods).

Royalty-free media can be classed as Commercial or Editorial.

Commercial use is any activity that uses a product or service for financial gain. In other words, you're using the stock media to directly promote a product or service. 

Editorial is media that usually shows a brand, product, recognisable landmark, or public personality. All commercial use of editorial media is prohibited. You can only use this media type for something considered newsworthy or educational. For example, think of a newspaper image of a famous person falling out of a bar. You can use their image to support the news story, but not for commercial, promotional, endorsement, merchandising or advertising use afterwards. So, you can't promote your business with it. 

As editorials are usually taken without the consent of the subject matter in it, any media with an identifiable person, place, logo or even trademark will have strict commercial use rights attached to it. For example, you are not allowed to imply that a person or brand has endorsed your product or service in any way, shape, or form. 

So, you can't use the paparazzi image you've seen on Getty of Chris Hemsworth to promote your product or service because you don't have Chris's direct permission to use it. In addition, you can't portray the contents of an editorial in a lousy light either or in a way viewed as offensive, pornographic or racist etc.

Editorials are strictly for non-commercial use. This is pretty standard across all stock media sites.

Did you know that our fave online design app Canva has editorial media in its library? No? Make sure you check the media you're using.

Let's talk about Canva.

Canva allows you to easily create and share graphics, visuals, newsletters, and templates; you name it, Canva can do it!

Canva users have access to two types of stock media. Free Stock Media and Pro Stock Media. Each has its own license.

The PRO license and FREE license are both included in their paid-for subscription. PRO isn't available as part of their non-paying standard subscription.

When you sign up for their paid subscription, Canva automatically issues a new license for each bit of PRO content you use, so its use becomes limitless as long as you abide by their T&Cs. 

The FREE license has fewer restrictions, and stock media choice is limited – but if you have a design that uses both FREE and PRO content, your design is bound to the PRO license agreement, not the FREE license agreement.

Both licenses let you modify or alter photos, graphics, music, and video files for commercial use.

But if the media contains an identifiable person, place, logo or even trademark, you will need to refer to the license to check its commercial use rights. Remember, you can't portray any identifiable people or brands in a bad light or in a way viewed as offensive, pornographic or racist. And again, you are not allowed to imply that a person or brand has endorsed your product or service.

Like other stock media sites, the media on Canva belongs to the person who created the original works (the copyright holder), not the end user (that’s you, by the way). Therefore, unless you have their direct written permission, you can't use their work as part of a trademark, a design mark, a trading name, a business name, a service mark, or even a logo design.

A trademark is a type of intellectual property, like a badge of origin. And come in all shapes and sizes. Think words, slogans, logos, shapes, icons, symbols, colours, sounds and imagery. Trademarks are used to distinguish one business's goods or services from another. 

You can only trademark a design created in Canva if you designed it from scratch and/or only used their FREE elements such as basic fonts, shapes, and lines. Therefore, your composition must be PRO media-free.

This is especially true regarding logo design and/or using their template library. For example, if you use one of Canva's pre-existing templates for your logo because you are not the original creator of the stock media contained within the template, any design created using that template can't be trademarked. 

Again, because the stock media belongs to the copyright holder, unless you have their explicit written consent, you can't use their work as part of a trademark, a design mark, a trading name, a business name, a service mark, or even a logo design. 

So, if you design something in Canva, who owns the copyright?

Without wishing to confuse you, it depends on the composition of the design.

To paraphrase Canva on this one, generally speaking – if you're the creator of an original design, you're also its copyright holder.

However, if you use third-party content, the Canva stock media within your design, your ownership is subject to third-party rights.

So, you own the design composition but not the elements you've used to create the design. It's a bit like if you take a photo of a work of art in an art gallery or sculpture in a museum, you own the picture, but not the work of art or sculpture in the picture – that belongs to the artist. 

Canva has tightened up how its media is shared. At first glance, it looks complicated, but in practice, it isn't. Canva wants any work created in Canva to stay in Canva. It wants people who cross-share work to have the same license in place, so if you use PRO and design something with all PRO elements and then share it, the person you're sharing it with must also be a PRO user and abide by the same licensing T&Cs as you.

You can still share the work with a non- PRO user. However, they will be expected to pay a license fee for the PRO elements you've sent them AND can only use Canva to access the design. They wouldn't be allowed to download and update the design in Adobe Creative Cloud or similar. The design is native to Canva. Therefore, it must stay native to Canva. 

Anything you use from Canva, including fonts, icons, video, music, templates etc., can't be downloaded directly from Canva to use on a non-Canva design. To repeat, this is because they are native to Canva. So therefore, must stay native to Canva. 

Their stock media can only be shared on a piece of content as part of a project. However, you can't share the stock media in its original (or unaltered) version because you're not the original copyright holder! Plus, you can't then take the media and save it to a format that allows it to be shared peer-to-peer, downloaded, exported, or even distributed via a mobile device. It must be part of a design.

And, if you've created content for a mix of clients that use the same image, unless it falls under the FREE license agreement, you can only share that image with a single client! And that's as long as they have the PRO license to use it and agree to follow the license T&Cs (which you're responsible for enforcing, btw).

What about using stock media for reselling purposes, say on a piece of merchandise or in a digital template? You can't use any unaltered, original standalone media for resale. You must incorporate it into a design. So you can't create a poster to sell on Etsy without first altering the chosen stock media to within an inch of its life by incorporating it into a design.

Believe it or not, Canva gives you slightly more usage flexibility than stock media from sites such as iStock or Almay! However, if you want to use media from a site like iStock on Canva, make sure you check the other sites licensing small print carefully. 

Anything you upload to Canva is considered your “User Content”, and you retain all ownership, BUT… a grey area appears when you start incorporating Canva design elements. 

Although the layout you've created is considered original content, so you own the final design. The individual elements you've used to generate the content still belong to the original copyright holders, Canva and the other stock media site. For example, if you want to use an image from iStock on a Canva template to sell, iStock might require you to have an extended license in place to use it.

What is an extended license?

Most stock library sites issue a standard license when you use their media, usually royalty-free, with no file restrictions regarding expiration dates (they exist, btw) or geographical limitations. An extended license gives you all the same rights as a standard license but with more flexibility, such as using media to create products for resale or distribution, e.g., creating an infographic for a website or a graphic for a digital template or being able to use the media on a t-shirt design intended for resale.

What about using an image from Google images?

Google is a search engine. It's not a stock media site!

When you pull an image from it, think of all the photographers and creators. They haven't uploaded their work to Google for us to use where we want. Instead, Google creates a gallery based on specific search criteria. Photographers and creators still own the copyright! You will still need their permission to use the image. 

How do you find out who owns an image on Google? If you click on it, you're (generally) taken to the image source, usually a website. Unless the image has been distributed using an open license like a Creative Commons license, you can't use it to directly promote your business, product or service!

Creative Commons is a license that allows the creator of a piece of original work to retain its copyright while others use it in a non-commercial manner. In other words, the creator has given permission for their work to be used, copied, and shared while they retain copyright, ensuring the work is credited back to them BUT (again) in a non-commercial means. 

If you find an image with a Creative Commons license and want to use it commercially, read the small print. Contact the original creator, and they might let you use it with the correct attribution. 

What about stock fonts?

Like stock media, fonts can be royalty-free or licensed commercially. In addition, fonts are governed by a EULA or End User License Agreement, which sets out how you can and can't use the fonts.

To get technical, a “font” is a computer file or program that tells your printer, monitor, display etc., how a letter or character is supposed to look on the screen or paper. Although these days the words “font” and “typeface” are interchangeable, it's important not to get TEXT, TYPEFACES, TYPOGRAPHY or FONTS confused.

TEXT is a sequence of words, like this sentence or a paragraph, whereas TYPOGRAPHY is the visual component. So, it's the TYPEFACE or FONT style you choose for the text. 

A EULA is a type of contract between a software producer or vendor. In this case, the person who created the font. And the eventual end user of the font.

Fonts can't be shared unless it (specifically) says so in the EULA. Or, to use its technical term, sub-licensed. To simplify, graphic designers aren't allowed to share the fonts they're using with others. For example, suppose they want to share a piece of work with their client. The designer can't share the fonts unless their client has a license for that particular font. If the client doesn't, they must purchase it. In other words, it doesn't matter who's using the font. Each font user needs a license to use it.

I must mention that not all fonts fall under a EULA. Some, like those found on Canva FREE or Google fonts, are open-source fonts which use an Open Font License or OFL. OFL fonts are free to obtain, use and share. But there is a caveat. 

In some cases, open source doesn't always mean free. And free fonts aren't always free! Specific commercial endeavours might trip you up. For example, you might only be allowed to use the OFL font for a personal project so in a non-commercial manner.

You will notice that I haven’t mentioned music licensing; this is because it’s constantly evolving anything published now will probably be out of date by the time you read this article.

Written by Selena Durrant


TikTok: @adeliecreative
Instagram: @adeliecreative
Facebook: @AdelieCreativeLtd
LinkedIn: selenadurrantacl/adélie-creative-ltd


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