The Difference Between Rights Managed and Royalty Free

You might find yourself scratching your head from time to time with the question, “what’s the difference between rights-managed and royalty-free?”

Photo: © Holger Leue (ImageBrief Premium Photographer)

For some, there can be a considerable amount of confusion. Before wrapping my head around it all, my first reaction anytime I heard the word “rights” in connection to photography or creative property was to seize up — all the nuances just seemed so overwhelmingly complicated. When it comes down to it though, if you’re going to play the game, you have to know the rules. And trust me, it’s not that hard to wrap your head around RF and RM. We’re going to break it down for you.

The difference between the two

Rights-Managed: The buyer pays a licensing fee in order to be able to use the image. That licensing fee is based on usage. For example: location, type of media, length of time the photo will be used, etc. The buyer can also opt to pay for exclusive rights and there can be restrictions that apply based on all of the above factors.

Royalty-Free: A one-off fee is paid to the photographer by the image-buyer, but the photographer is free to sell that image multiple times to different buyers as much as he or she wants. Essentially, this is also known as “unrestricted” content. The price for the image is often dependent on the image size (high- or low-resolution). The buyer gets no exclusivity to the image and the photographer might not know when, for what, and for how long the image is used for.

Regardless of the above category, if images are to be used commercially (i.e. not editorial) they need to be properly released.

Photo: © Kubra Karacizmeli (ImageBrief Premium Photographer)

Can royalty free images be licensed as rights managed and vice versa?

No. This might be a no-brainer for some, but let’s talk it through. If a client purchases a rights-managed image, they have expectations on the exclusive rights(or non-exclusive depending on what’s negotiated) to an image. Let’s say they buy an image with exclusive rights for one year in North America. The buyer will then have the expectation that they’re the only one with those rights for that time in that location. Buyers purchase rights-managed images with the expectation that the rights management and usually higher price means that image has been used a lot less. The ideal being it is less likely to conflict with another company’s usage, even without exclusivity.

Now let’s say a photographer has that same — or very similar — image also listed on royalty-free stock sites or has sold it in the past, then there’s a problem…a big, fat problem. That’s like Picasso selling a one-of-a-kind piece to a collector who thinks the piece is an original, but in fact ol’ Picasso has made duplicates and prints and is selling those too. Another example: A farmer leases a portion of her land to another farmer for a certain amount of time, but then she forgot that she leased that same piece of land to her friend to raise crops on at the same time. That’s not going to work and neither party is going to be happy. The same goes with selling rights to images.

Plain and simple, if you have images in a royalty-free marketplace or royalty free stock site, then you can’t sell those images as rights-managed. Along the same lines, if an image is listed as royalty-free somewhere, it cannot be submitted to rights-managed briefs — whether the images are royalty free on ImageBrief or elsewhere.

The main lesson here: If you license something royalty-free, there’s no going back (unless that photo is never bought or licensed) but in the end, as a photographer your earnings could be much greater and more frequent.

This post originally appeared on the ImageBrief Blog and was written by Jacob Pastrovich, Community Manager at ImageBrief.