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Who owns the copyright to the images and media products you get from a stock image website? Do you? Or does the stock image website? Or is it the person or company who initially created the product? How does this link with licenses to use these products?
This short note will try to explain how it all works.
An image (or other media products) starts with the person who takes or creates it. This person (typically a photographer or artist) who creates the products (we will call him or her the originator) will typically be the person who owns the copyright to this product.
What happens next is that this originator hires a stock image website to market and promote the media product on his or her behalf. Some photographers promote their images on their own websites, however, for most this is not particularly efficient because most photographers will only have a limited number of products on their website and it will therefore normally be difficult to get enough visitors to the website. Therefore, to have an agency do the marketing can be a good solution.
The originator normally doesn't sell the image nor the copyright to the stock agencies. Therefore, the copyright still resides with the originator. What instead happens, is that the originator appoints the stock image agency to sell various usage rights (to the image) to end-users.
End-users can purchase different rights, such as the right to use the image on a website, print 5,000 marketing flyers with the images on it, or use the image in a billboard ad. For these different uses, there are separate licences. A license is a legal agreement that governs the particular use of the media product. Put differently, you can only use the media product according to what is dictaded by the license.
This means that the stock image websites simply acts as a 'middle-man' who helps end-users purchase rights to the products. But the stock image agencies normally don't create products themselves, nor do they normally own copyrights to any of the product. The function of the stock image agencies is to create a marketplace where millions of products can be transacted in an easy and quick way.
So when you purchase a license to an image or other media product from a stock image agency, you purchase a right to use it. You will neither own the product, nor own the copyright to it - even if you were to purchase a right under an exclusive license.