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Important tips for using royalty-free images and other content

Game lawyer Zachary Strebeck looks at the important issues surrounding “royalty-free” images, music and other content.

Zachary Strebeck, Blogger

February 19, 2015

9 Min Read

What should you keep in mind when you use royalty-free content in your products?

There are a few issues that stem from not understanding the term “royalty-free” and from misinformation that is out there. Hopefully this post can clear up a few common issues and misconceptions with the concept of “royalty-free.”

Royalty-free content can come in the form of images, video, 3D models, Powerpoint presentation templates, music, sound effects and even website themes. The term comes from the compensation model, not from any particular attribute of the content itself.

Royalty-free doesn’t mean “free”:

Yes, it says “free” right there in the name. However, that doesn’t mean that the image itself is free. If you search for royalty-free stock images on Google Images, for example, you may not have the permission to actually use those.

In fact, Google themselves were sued for putting thumbnails in search. However, they won their case on a fair use defense. You would probably not be so lucky.

What royalty-free really means is that you can use the image for specified purposes and within a specified scope without having to pay an ongoing fee (otherwise known as a “royalty”). Often, this involves paying the owner or author of the image a sum of money up front. Getty Images or Shutterstock are two examples of this kind of model. Other royalty-free setups, like Creative Commons-licensed images, do not require these payments. We’ll discuss those in a bit.

You don’t own it:

When you pay that up-front fee for royalty-free content, you don’t actually gain ownership of the content. Instead, you are getting a “license” to use that content. A license is, essentially, just the content owner allowing you to use something, while still staying the owner of that content.

A license can be exclusive, which means that your license is preventing the owner from licensing it out to anyone else. However, most royalty-free content on the Internet is under non-exclusive licensing. This means that others may be licensing the same content. If others using the same image or music is a problem for your brand or company, this may be something to take into consideration. You may want to contract with someone for exclusive content, or create it yourself.

The particular license you get can impact your use of the content, as well. For instance, if you were to license a WordPress theme for your website, you generally only get to use that theme on that single site (unless you pay a much higher fee). If you are a developer who is creating many sites with a single theme, you will have to pay that higher licensing fee for multiple sites.

You may need to attribute the original author:

I’ve discussed Creative Commons-licensed content in another post. Under those licenses, you don’t need to pay a royalty for the use of the content. However, there may be various other conditions for using that content.

Often, one of these conditions is that the original author needs to be attributed somewhere in your product. Other conditions include limiting the use to non-commercial uses or not altering the content in any way.

Read the fine print:

It’s important to know exactly what you’re licensing when you use royalty-free content. Failure to do this could land you in hot water, as many who inadvertantly misused Getty Images have found out, for example. Before that Cease and Desist letter shows up demanding a big settlement, make sure you’re doing things right in the first place.

For assistance with understanding a licensing agreement or any other game development issues, why not contact a game lawyer? Also, if you’d like an overview of the important issues in game development, check out my two free eBooks and checklists by signing up for my mailing list below or on the right side of the blog.

photo credit: all bottled up inside via photopin (license)


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