Quick Guide to Stock Media Licenses (RF, RM, CC, and more)


This article doesn’t offer legal advice. When in doubt, seek legal counsel from a lawyer specializing in copyright law.

Royalty-Free (RF): Pay once, use many times without additional fees. • Rights-Managed (RM): Specific, limited use of copyrighted material. • Public Domain (PD): Released for the public to use for free; No exclusive rights • Creative Commons (CC): Licenses allowing free distribution with terms set by creator. • Fair Use: Limited use without permission for purposes like criticism, news, education. • Indemnification: offers extra financial security in case of legal disputes.

This guide gives you a quick overview of these common licensing formats used for online material, such as stock video and photos, sound effects, music, visual effects, templates, and more.

I recommend licensing stock media from sites that offer indemnification (see more below).

Introduction: Why Understanding Licenses and Rights Matters

music copyright infringement illustration

Picture this: you’ve just crafted the most epic video, and you think, “Hey, a bit of Taylor Swift or Drake would elevate this!” But here’s the kicker – using mainstream music is like stepping into a legal minefield.

Not only are the licensing fees through the roof, but the process is also complex and can lead to your content being taken down or, worse, legal action against you for copyright infringement.

Using royalty-free music instead not only saves on costs but also allows you to create your video without the fear of copyright claims that could arise from using a track by a mainstream artist without proper licensing.

The same is true for all types of copyright-protected media, where stock media comes into play.

By stock media, I mean ready-to-use images, videos, music, sound effects, MORGT files, and other multimedia content available for licensing and incorporation into various projects by individuals or businesses.

See good places to find royalty-free music.

Royalty-free licenses

Royalty-free content is media that is available for use without needing ongoing royalties.

You typically pay a one-time fee to license the content, granting them the right to use it in various projects indefinitely.

It is a cost-effective solution if you seek high-quality, legal multimedia elements.

See good places to find royalty-free sound effects.

Rights-managed (RF) licenses

Rights-managed licenses grant users the right to use footage in a particular way for a defined period.

Unlike royalty-free licenses, rights-managed licenses are tailored to the user’s needs, specifying usage terms such as the type of media, distribution size, duration, and geographical location.

This customization often makes rights-managed content more expensive and exclusive, ensuring that others do not widely use the footage.

An additional license must be purchased when the footage is used in a new project or beyond the original terms.

Public Domain (PD)

Public Domain Illustration

When a work is in the public domain, it is no longer under copyright protection.

It belongs to the public, allowing anyone to use, reproduce, distribute, or modify the work without seeking permission from its previous copyright holder.

Works can enter the public domain for various reasons, such as the expiration of copyright (which varies by country but is generally the author’s life plus 70 years), the explicit release of the work into the public domain by the copyright owner, or because it was never eligible for copyright protection in the first place (like works created by the U.S. Federal Government).

See good places to find Public Domain footage.

Copyright-free content, including music, sound effects (SFX), and stock video, refers to materials not protected by copyright laws or whose copyright has expired.

This allows them to be freely used, distributed, and modified by anyone without permission or payment to the original creator.

“Copyright-free” and “public domain” do not mean the same thing, although they are related concepts in intellectual property law.

Copyright-Free is less formal and can be somewhat misleading. It might describe works in the public domain, but it can also refer to works for which the copyright holder has waived copyright or works that have been licensed so that the copyright restrictions do not apply for certain uses.

For example, a copyright holder might release a work under a Creative Commons license that allows for free use, distribution, and modification under specific conditions, which could be described as “copyright-free” for those uses.

However, the copyright still exists, and the work does not become public domain because the original creator still has rights over it, including the right to change the terms of use or revoke the license under certain conditions.

Public domain refers to a legal status where a work is no longer under copyright and is freely available for use by anyone.

Copyright-free is a more informal term that might refer to works in the public domain or works that are still copyrighted but have been made available for free use under certain conditions.

Creative Commons (CC)

There are also Creative Commons (abbreviated CC) guidelines that allow the original creator of an asset to determine what rights they waive and which they reserve.

For example, a Creative Commons license could determine that you can use your sound effects in a short, but not a feature film people pay to go see

You can read the different levels of Creative Commons licenses here: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/

Fair Use

Fair Use illustration

Then there’s fair use, an exception to the copyright laws for things like educational material, news reporting, criticism, and parody.

If you are in doubt whether your included sound effects are fair use, these factors should be considered:

  1. The purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is commercial or is for nonprofit educational purposes;
  2. the nature of the copyrighted work;
  3. the amount and substantiality of the portion used to the copyrighted work as a whole, and
  4. the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

Remember – just because something is royalty-free doesn’t mean you own the copyright. You have permission to use it without paying a big licensing fee.

Always confirm the licensing rights of your sound effects before using them in your videos to save yourself from any legal ramifications later.

In the common understanding, some of the options we discuss today will be royalty-free, as they are free for anyone.

In contrast, others will charge licensing fees through annual subscriptions or one-time payments, which still technically qualify as royalty-free.

Commercial vs. Editorial licenses

The last thing I want to cover is the difference between commercial and editorial licenses, as each license type has its own set of rules and limitations.

The main difference between commercial and editorial licenses for stock footage lies in the intended use of the footage.

Commercial licenses offer broad usage rights for promotional or revenue-generating projects, while editorial licenses are restricted to informational, non-commercial content.

It’s important to carefully consider your project’s purpose and choose the appropriate license to avoid legal issues and ensure compliance with the licensing terms. Always read the stock footage provider’s specific terms and conditions, as these can vary and may include additional restrictions or requirements.

Commercial License

A commercial license allows stock footage to be used in any commercial, promotional, or advertisement project.

This means you can use the footage in projects that will be monetized, used to sell a product or service, or used in any way that directly generates revenue or promotes a commercial entity.

Commercial licenses typically do not restrict the size of the audience, duration of use, or geographical location where the content can be distributed.

Commercial licenses are more flexible for teams and individuals looking to use stock footage in various projects, from commercials and corporate videos to product demos and social media content.

Key features of Commercial Licenses:

  • Broad usage rights, including advertising, marketing, and promotional activities.
  • No restrictions on audience size or distribution scope.
  • Ideal for projects intended to generate revenue or promote a commercial entity.

Editorial License

On the other hand, an editorial license restricts stock footage to non-commercial, editorial purposes only.

This means the footage can be used in contexts such as news broadcasts, documentaries, non-commercial blogs, and educational materials where the primary goal is to inform, educate, or report rather than to sell a product or service.

Editorial licenses typically prohibit the use of footage in any commercial context. They may also come with additional restrictions, such as time limits on usage or limitations on where the content can be distributed.

Key features of Editorial Licenses:

  • Restricted to non-commercial, informational uses.
  • Not suitable for promotional, advertising, or commercial projects.
  • Commonly used in news reporting, documentaries, educational content, and similar contexts.

Indemnification meaning

Indemnification is a legal (and financial up to a certain limit) protection a stock media site provides its users if the content they purchase and use leads to legal disputes, such as copyright infringement claims.

Some stock media sites offer indemnification to their users as part of their license agreements, while others might not, leaving users to bear potential legal risks on their own.

It’s important to note that the availability and extent of indemnification can vary widely among sites and may change over time, so it’s always best to review any stock media site’s current terms and conditions.

Stock footage sites that offer indemnification – and those that don’t!

Below, I’ve created a table of popular stock media sites that offer indemnification and some that don’t.

Remember, the availability of indemnification and its terms can change, so it’s important to consult the specific site’s terms of service or legal agreements for the most accurate and up-to-date information.

Stock Media Sites with IndemnificationDescriptionSpecific Terms for IndemnificationStock Media Sites without IndemnificationDescription
Adobe StockHigh-quality images, videos, and templates.Indemnification included with all licenses.PexelsFree stock photos and videos shared by talented creators.
ShutterstockVast library of images, videos, and music tracks.Enhanced License required for indemnification.UnsplashFree high-resolution photos from photographers worldwide.
Getty ImagesPremium stock photos, videos, and music.Indemnification included, higher coverage with Premium Access.PixabayFree images, videos, and music you can use anywhere.
iStock by Getty ImagesAffordable stock photos, illustrations, and videos.Indemnification included with all licenses.FreepikFree vectors, stock photos, PSD, and icons.
ArtlistRoyalty-free music and SFX for video production.Indemnificatinot included in Standard License. Requires the Enterprise Solution.Motion ArrayVideo assets, templates, and stock music.
Envato ElementsUnlimited creative assets including stock photos and video.Indemnification included with subscription.MorguefileFree high-resolution digital stock photography for either corporate or public use.
StoryblocksRoyalty-free stock images, videos, and audio.Indemnification included with all plans.StockVaultFree photos, textures, and backgrounds for personal and commercial use.
Pond5Media marketplace for buying and selling royalty-free clips and more.Indemnification requires purchase of an upgraded license.Burst by ShopifyFree stock photos for websites and commercial use.
AlamyOver 215 million stock images, vectors, videos, and 360-degree panoramic images.Indemnification included with all licenses.RawPixelUnique images, graphics, and design resources.


Stock media is available under various licensing types, each with permissions and restrictions.

Rights-managed (RF) licenses offer specific usage rights for a fee.

Royalty-free (RF) licenses allow unlimited use after a one-time payment but with restrictions on resale. Extended or enhanced licenses provide additional rights, such as for commercial use.

Public domain content is free to use without restrictions, as copyright has expired or was forfeited.

Creative Commons licenses facilitate the free legal sharing and use of intellectual property under specific conditions.

The concept of fair use permits limited use of copyrighted material without permission for purposes like criticism or education.

License indemnification clauses protect against legal issues from using the stock media, ensuring the licensee is not liable for certain infringements.

Up Next: Best Sites to Find Royalty-Free Gun Effects


  • Jan Sørup

    Jan Sørup is a indie filmmaker, videographer and photographer from Denmark. He owns filmdaft.com and the Danish company Apertura, which produces video content for big companies in Denmark and Scandinavia. Jan has a background in music, has drawn webcomics, and is a former lecturer at the University of Copenhagen.

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