Can I legally use free stock photos for my business?

November 21, 2019

Can I legally use free stock photos for my business?

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The answer is maybe. (But why chance it?)

In recent years, there’s been an increase in stock media sites that claim to offer free high-quality video, photos, and audio at no cost to users. But is this content really free? The truth is that without doing a lot of legwork, you may never really know for sure.

Free stock content may seem like an easy way to save cash, but it could get your business into legal hot water and may end up costing you.

Here are a few questions to think about before using content you downloaded for free:

I found this cool video on a free stock site and I want to use it in an ad for my business. Can I legally do that?

Not necessarily. Chances are, if you’re creating projects on behalf of a business, the stock media you’ve downloaded is not intended for commercial use. In order to legally use stock in your advertising, marketing materials, presentation, product, or really anything intended to generate revenue for your business, you need to make sure it is licensed it for commercial use by the original copyright owner or a distributor who has the right to grant a license on behalf of the copyright owner. 

Some free stock media sites make it super clear what content is licensed for commercial use, but others don’t do such a great job. Make sure you are certain before you plan an advertising campaign using that content.

The content I want to use is covered under a Creative Commons license. I should be good to use it, right?

Not necessarily. There are different variations of the Creative Commons license, and they all allow for different usage scenarios. Some allow for commercial use and some don’t. Others require you to provide attribution to the original copyright holder. Some allow you to alter the original content, while others don’t permit any derivative works (yes, that includes the hilarious meme you were going to make). Make sure you know what permissions apply to the content you want to use.

The free content I downloaded is covered under a Creative Commons Zero (CC0) license and is in the public domain now. I can legally use it for any purpose, correct?

Say it with me again: Not necessarily. On top of usage considerations, you also need to consider the subject depicted in the content you’re using.

“Free” content showing people (even when licensed under Creative Commons Zero) is rarely fully cleared to use for commercial purposes. That’s because if a video or photo depicts a recognizable person, most countries legally require the model’s consent be obtained before using their image commercially. The awesome shot of that kid on a skateboard shot in public? If the site you downloaded from can’t provide a signed model release, you’ll have to track down the model (and in the case of this minor, their legal guardian) to get permission to use their likeness in your project.

The same goes for landmarks and buildings. Without a signed property-release, that beautiful shot of the Eiffel tower at night can get you into une situation trés grave. Video or photos captured in public settings can often be used for editorial purposes, so that is why you will find non-released content available. So just because the copyright holder of a video clip has granted the right to use their work, it doesn’t mean that people, properties or trademarks included in that shot are free to use for any purpose. 

More than they used to. Media recognition technology is getting better and better, and tools like Google Reverse Image Search and YouTube and Facebook’s video and audio recognition systems make it easier than ever for copyright holders to find content that’s out of compliance.

So you’re saying I can’t ever use free stock media?

Not at all. If you’ve found a free piece of stock content that’s licensed for commercial use, and you’ve obtained proof of both a signed model and property release, you might be in the clear for commercial use.

But know that most free stock services won’t help you out if a claim does arise. The legal responsibility for using stock content lies with the publisher (aka you or your business), regardless of whether or not you were aware of the infringement. That means you will be coughing up the cash if anyone makes a claim. And typically the bigger the business, the larger the claims. Most stock media services where you pay to license content will offer a level of indemnity to their customers.

The best thing you can do to avoid being surprised by unexpected copyright claims is to license your stock content from a reputable source. Otherwise, you may end up paying $8,000 in damages for a bad photo of Nebraska.

Why is a Storyblocks Business License the best deal for me?

Both the Storyblocks Individual License and Storyblocks Business License are available for video, audio, and image assets. Both license options are royalty-free and offer unlimited distribution for print, digital, and productions. The Individual license offers $20k of legal indemnification and the any asset that’s downloaded is licensed to the individual account holder. 

Here are a few reasons why the Business license may be best for your business:

  • With a Storyblocks Business License, assets are licensed to your business rather than an individual. Any content you or members of your organization download from us is covered. 
  • Content downloaded is guaranteed royalty-free and clearly marked when released for commercial use.
  • Storyblocks has your back if any claims arise. Members with a Business license get up to $1 million in indemnification for all Storyblocks users at your organization. We offer the highest level of coverage in the industry.
  • Storyblocks takes care of the hard work of licensing for you. We have a professional team of content licensing specialists on staff, dedicated to making sure we do right by both our customers and contributors.

LEARN MORE about the Storyblocks business license

Last but not least, members with a Business license get unlimited downloads from our video, image, video and audio libraries. You and your team can download as much content as you need for one flat annual price.

Want to find out how a Storyblocks business license can protect you? Let’s talk.


We make it easy to find amazing stock media at a fraction of the usual cost, with the most straightforward, flexible licensing available. As the first subscription-based stock media company, our commitment is to champion fairness and democratize the creative process, because every story deserves a chance to be told.