Using Stock Photos On Book Covers

Book covers are created using either custom or stock photography. Custom photography is created by a hired photographer to create something unique for your exclusive use. Stock photography, on the other hand, is photos that more than one person can use simultaneously for a wide variety of projects like book covers.

Using stock photos to create a book cover is a relatively easy process for a cover designer, whether that’s you or a professional you’ve hired. The photo is “purchased” from a stock photograph website, which means you have bought a license to use the photo.

Seems simple enough, right? And it can be, provided you read the license and understand what level of use you purchased. Just because you licensed a stock photo doesn’t mean you have the right to use it with your eBook, paperback, or hardcover editions unless you have the appropriate license.

So let’s learn about the various levels of restrictions on the use of stock photography. On most stock photography sites, there are at least two levels of rights – standard and exclusive.

The standard license

In general, a standard license allows unlimited use of an image in digital formats like eBooks and websites. As for print formats like hardcover or paperback, a standard license typically allows for use of the photo in a particular number of print runs. For example, under an iStockPhoto standard license, you may not reproduce the content more than 500,000 times in physical print form.

Often the standard license comes with a number of other restrictions too. For example, under the iStockPhoto standard license, you’ll find restrictions like:

  • No Unlawful Use—like pornographic, defamatory, or other unlawful manners
  • No Use in Trademarks or Logos
  • Sensitive Use Disclaimer Required — disclaimers to be used for photos with models that are used with unflattering or controversial subject matters
  • No False Representation of Authorship – you may not falsely represent that you are the creator of the photo

Not all standard licenses are created equal, so read the license carefully.

The extended license

An extended license gives you additional rights in exchange for an additional fee. In general, the extended license will lift or broaden a number of the restrictions under the standard license. For example, some extended licenses allow you to print unlimited numbers of hardcovers or paperbacks. Extended licenses also provide for the use of the photo on merchandise such as postcards, greeting cards, stationery, stickers, paper products, posters, calendars, mugs, and apparel. All those swag products you’d like to make as a marketing tool to sell your book.


Other rights

In addition to the standard and exclusive license, here are a few other rights you should understand.

  1. Editorial use only
    • Some stock photos come with licenses for editorial use only. This means you may not use any photos marked “editorial use only” for any commercial purposes, like promotions, advertisements, endorsements, and merchandising. Usually, these photos are for use in connection with events that are newsworthy or of general interest (like a blog, textbook, newspaper, or magazine article).
  2. Right to alter
    • Stock photos are often used by cover designers and then altered to fit the book design. Designers will tweak the image, add new graphics, and other visual effects. The right to alter a stock photo is sometimes in the extended license or sometimes you’ll find it separate (and for an additional cost). If the stock photo is going to be changed, you’ll need to secure the right to alter before creating the cover art. I would venture to say, all photos used for book cover art will be altered to add at least a title and an author’s name.
  3. Who can use the licensed content
    • This provision deals with the transferability of the licensed rights. Usually, the rights granted under a stock photo license are non-transferable and non-sublicensable, which means no one but you can use the photo unless exceptions are listed. Some exceptions might include the purchase of the photo on behalf of an employer or client. If so, the employer or client can use the photo. Or the use by subcontractors, like your printer or distributor.


If you don’t know where to find stock photography, see my earlier article: How To Use Copyright Protected Images (and not violate copyright laws).

One side note, which my earlier article discusses, some images, the ones with an identifiable human, need a model release. A model release is a form signed by the identifiable person, allowing their image to be used for commercial or non-commercial purposes. When you find a stock photo you want to use and it has a model, look for assurances in your license that a model release is on file. Then read it to make sure their image can be used for commercial purposes. If not, you’ll need the consent of the person in the image if you want to avoid legal hassles.



Photo credit: .hd. | Visual Hunt | CC BY-NC-SA

Legal disclaimer: The information in this article is for educational purposes only. It does not constitute legal advice or establish an attorney-client relationship. Consult a qualified lawyer in your jurisdiction for all legal opinions for your specific situation.


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