Electro Image LLC

The Importance of Knowing the Difference When Designing Marketing Materials

Copyright law is complex, with many subtleties, but a basic understanding is that the original creator of an image, photograph, design or other creative work inherently owns its copyright (except in some cases where an entity hiring the creator could be the copyright owner), for a specific length of time, after which it may enter the public domain and be available for free usage by anyone.

Simply put, if you did not take that photograph or paint that artwork yourself, you must consider it owned by someone else and use it only with the appropriate permissions in place.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that you have no access to quality images to use in your business communications and marketing materials. There are thousands-upon-thousands of rights-imagesmanaged, royalty-free and copyright-free images out there to choose from, in a broad range of prices and licensing structures.

With such an abundance of choices, it is important to understand the differences so that you can make an informed and cost-effective selection that will fulfill your needs.


Artwork in this category is owned and managed by the copyright holder or their authorized agent. Licenses carry very specific terms of use, including limitations as to frequency, placement, type of use, etc., and a detailed history of licenses and usage is maintained. This type of image is usually near the high end of the cost spectrum, but there is less chance of seeing the work you license appearing in competitive (or objectionable) materials. An example of a rights-managed collection that carries some of the most extensive licensing and clearance requirements is that of Martin Luther King Jr and his family. Strict controls are in place to ensure that dignity and usage in line with the Reverend’s values are maintained at all times.


Widely distributed, royalty-free collections are comprised of images specifically selected to appeal to a broad range of users. They generally offer more freedom of use and are lower in cost than rights-managed, because once the initial fee is paid, you are free to use the image an unlimited number of times in multiple ways and media. This does not, however, mean that you now “own” the image and can do absolutely anything you wish with it.

While most typical business uses are allowed – such as in marketing materials, advertising placement and web sites – licensing terms exist and there are some limitations. For example, a use not normally allowed would be to alter a royalty-free photo and enter it into a contest as an original photograph.

While these collections are a convenient source for finding artwork suited to your purposes, it also carries the possibility that you’ll see your “perfect” photo used by another company in their materials as well. But, if the licensing terms allow, a talented graphic designer can transform images in many ways, so using a royalty-free image as a starting point may be a viable option to help ensure your materials have a quality look and appeal.

Copyright-Free or Public Domain

These images do not carry a copyright and can be utilized by anyone, anywhere, at any time. It is vital that you are completely sure that an image is in the public domain before using it, however. Just because a photograph is old or taken “in public,” do not assume it is free of copyright restrictions. Again, this area of the law is very complex, but generally speaking, the original copyright must have either expired or the copyright holder has legally released the rights.

While the realm of copyright can be tricky, an experienced graphics professional can help you safely – and legally – navigate your way to great images with the appropriate terms for your situation.

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