You’re browsing stock photos for a nice hero image on your nonprofit website. After searching and searching, you finally find one that suits your needs. The next step is easy, right? Purchase the photo and fire it up onto your website and all of your printed brochures. While, yes, it is easy to buy photos online, the vast majority of stock sites have rules for using stock photos and offer a different photo licensing agreement. It’s important to understand what exactly you are purchasing before plastering a stock photo all over your business collateral.

Most stock photo sites offer more than one type of usage license, and it’s in your best interest to purchase the correct one to cover yourself or your organization from any sort of potential legal infringements. Follow these steps to make sure that you’re buying the correct license based on how your nonprofit intends to use any given stock photo.

Creative vs. Editorial License

Are you searching for a photo to use prominently on your website or in your branding materials? First and foremost, you need to make sure that the photo is under a creative license rather than an editorial license.

Most stock photo sites, like iStock, define editorial use as content that “is not model or property released and is intended to be used only in connection with events that are newsworthy or of general interest (for example, in a blog, textbook, newspaper or magazine article).” Photos of public events, private locations, and celebrities often fall under the editorial category.

Basically, this means that you should not use any photos tagged as “Editorial Use Only” for any commercial purposes. Don’t use them for advertisements, promotional usage, packaging, or endorsements.

Bottom line: Unless you’re looking for a photo to use within a specific blog post, you need to be searching exclusively for photos with a creative license.

But wait, there’s more!

Standard vs. Extended License

This part varies from site to site. As an example, we’re going to take a look at Shutterstock’s licensing options. If you’re using a different vendor, be sure to take a peek at their licensing breakdown.

Standard License

A standard license is usually the most basic license a stock photo vendor has to offer, and it typically has restrictions on how the photo can be used. For instance, they may restrict how many times the photo can be printed on business materials, how many people can technically use the image, and/or whether or not the photo is able to be used on a product that is then going to be resold.

Be sure to look at the standard license and determine if you intend to use the photo in ways that exceed the standard restrictions, making it necessary for you to purchase an extended license.

Extended License

An extended license is a more lenient license that usually costs a bit more. If the standard license caps brochure printing at 500,000 copies, the extended license may allow you to print unlimited copies. If the standard license does not allow you to put the photo onto merchandise that will be resold, the extended license may allow for that. All companies have a different photo licensing agreement, so it’s important to look over the options before purchasing your stock photos.

Shutterstock breaks down the difference between their licensing options in an easy-to-follow table.

As you begin to grow your stock photo collection, it might be a good idea to document what licenses you have for each photo. This could be as simple as creating a spreadsheet for quick reference with columns for the photo’s file name, vendor name, and license type to organize what your nonprofit has purchased in the past. Past licensing information can also be found within your individual stock photo website accounts.

This post is by no means the end all to photo licensing agreements—in fact it’s meant to be an overview of what to look for when purchasing stock photos—so be sure to take a peek at the different options your photo vendor offers. It’s easy to overlook the variety of licensing options during checkout, but it’s a good idea to get in the habit of double checking that you’re purchasing the correct license for how you intend to use each image. A few extra moments and dollars could potentially save you from legal issues in the future.

Do you have experience purchasing stock photos for your organization? Share your tips (or struggles) in the comments for others to learn from.