Exclusive vs. non-exclusive copyright – what’s the difference?

We are all completely aware of the fact that it’s illegal to download or use content without the permission of the creator, but rarely think twice before we share or use a picture on social media, or in a blog post. So, what do you need to consider when you use someone else’s photo?

Not only do you need to respect the copyright legislation of the country you’re operating in, but also the person who created the content you’re about to use, as you need his or hers permission. This permission is granted through a «license», which we’ll explain later in this article. But getting someone’s permission is easier said than done. The rise of the digital world of content often makes it difficult to nail down the original creator of a picture or piece of content. Especially if you make use of a piece of content as a business, copyright violation can become a very expensive and an unpleasant procedure. Your business will be responsible for the the damaged caused,  and the revenue gained will be used as a calculation base for a compensation.


Impact of copyright violation

In order to avoid an expensive lawsuit, you need to be aware of the legal status of the content you are going to use. If you ignore checking the content’s status, you might violate copyrights, which can get in some serious trouble:

Impact of copyright violation

It’s actually quite easy to avoid copyright violation. In fact, there are a lot of ways of getting your hands on quality photos in a legal way. As always, Google is your friend and will help you to find photos, which are free to use. Just switch over to Google Images, and under the tab ‘Tools’ you’ll find the tab ‘Usage right’. As a commercial business, you can use all pictures categorised as «labeled for reuse» or «labeled for reuse with modification». If you use «labeled for reuse», make sure you don’t do any modifications as it will count as a violation. Even just applying a filter to the image will count as a modification, so be careful here. If you’re looking to modify pictures found on Google Images, use the «with modification» option:

Using Google Images to find photography to modify


Ways to get free stock photos

For all the small businesses or startups out there that have no budget to actually buy a license for a picture, there are also various websites with stock photos that are completely free to use, with no requirement of crediting the owner:

Most of the pictures on these websites have a creative commons (CC) license. This license is used when an author wants to give people the right to use or edit the content as much as they want to. The only restriction is that identifiable people can’t be presented in a way that may be found offensive, unless they have given their consent. Pictures from these websites are often used and highly distributed within the world wide web, so don’t be surprised if you find your chosen photo on other websites as well.

If your business wants to stand out with unique content, you should consider buying unique footage directly from the photographers. The following licenses will then apply:

  • Exclusive copyright license
    With an exclusive licence, the parties agree that no other person/legal entity can exploit the relevant intellectual property rights, except the licensee. An exclusive license is the more expensive option and not really common. It even means that the creator loses the right of his own creation for the time the license is running, which puts restrictions on the creator who will be unable to sell more licenses for said content.
  • Non-exclusive copyright licenses
    A non-exclusive licence grants the licensee the right to use the intellectual property rights, but on a non-exclusive basis. That means that the licensor can still exploit the same intellectual property rights, and he/she can also allow other licensees to exploit the same intellectual property.
    Most photographers work with a non-exclusive license, because they can sell it to more than just one business or person, which also is a requirement to sell photographs on fee based stock photo websites.
    However, if you’re looking to get an exclusive license for your business, you might want to consider to get content through «work for hire».
  • Work for hire
    As a business, you can obtain the copyright of a photo which is created for you by a direct employee or a contracted photographer. But if you contract a photographer, you need to sign an agreement that specifically states that the provided work by the photographer is considered as «work made for hire». Only then, the copyright remains with the business who paid for the pictures (more information about this topic can be found here and here ).

As long as you use one of these three options, you shouldn’t have issues with copyright violation. But you have to decide which options is the best for you. The non-exclusive license is the cheapest and most common one, but we would advise you to get a exclusive license or if possible, use a «work for hire» agreement. For both the photographer and business, the following advantages apply:

Advantages for photographers and businesses when using a «Work for hire agreement»


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