Yes, you are confused! The more you read the normal forum posts, the more it all becomes muddled. If I had a dollar for each time someone said that an image didn’t have a release and so it must be rights managed, or that all RF images are for commercial use I would be a wealthy man…
Lets start with licensing. Royalty Free (RF) and Rights Managed (RM) are simply different licensing approaches. RF is a one-time license payment that lets the buyer use the image multiple times in different projects for as long as they want. RM is a more specific license where the buyer pays for a specific use, for instance in a calendar, and for that use only. If they use it again in next year’s calendar, they need to license it again. You would logically think that RF would be more expensive than RM, but that isn’t the way the industry has developed. The microstock agencies that are going for fast instant satisfaction of a need for an image wanted a simple licensing/pricing plan and a Royalty Free license gives them that. Over time, RM has tended to be associated with better and higher value images that are priced accordingly and as many full time professional photographers only license their images as RM so there is potentially more choice from higher end photographers available as RM. You can sell an image as RF on multiple sites, you can sell an image as RM on multiple sites, but you can’t sell an image as RM on one site and RF on another, mainly because a Rights Managed buyer might expect you to know what other uses your image has been put to – you have no idea if it is sold as RF.
OK, so far so good. Nothing about the above says that RF is only for commercial work, or RM images don’t need releases – that is where all the confusion starts…
Totally separately to licensing arrangements, there are restrictions on use of images, particularly if they contain people or products. But before we get to that, let’s define Commercial Use and Editorial Use. You might think that because you are selling a calendar, and are hoping to make money from it, that must be commercial use. Wrong… Commercial use doesn’t mean you got paid for it – it has nothing to do with you and your business arrangement for the website or calendar that is using the photo. Commercial use means that you are using the image to sell or promote a product, service or even an idea. An image used in a flyer for a political message where it could be understood that the person in the image is agreeing with the message would clearly be commercial use. To use an image of a person in such a way always requires a release from that person in the form of a Model Release, and so both RF and RM images used for “commercial” ie product or idea marketing related purposes, need releases. It is safe to say that always having releases people is a good idea, but is not always practical, which brings us to Editorial Usage.
In most countries, images used to illustrate an article in a newspaper, magazine or book (or website) that are not promoting any product or particular service are known as editorial images. It broadly means that it is newsworthy, although the definition of that is very broad and includes educational purposes as well. You can write an article talking about the dangers of sugar in soft drinks and illustrate it with a photo of a can of Coke – Coca Cola would never give you a release for that, but you are using it as an illustration to enhance your article and educate or inform the general public. This use of images is Editorial.
This scene taken in Washington DC
is Editorial. I could have chased after those two people and asked for releases, but it is unlikely they would have signed anything. But as an illustration of the amount that DC residents pay (known here as Taxation without Representation), the inclusion of those two people is fine. To take this one step further, my understanding is that I could not use that image to suggest that those specific people agree or disagree with the DC Government on this issue – that would have required releases from at least the woman and would have shifted to commercial use.
Some RF microstock sites take Editorial images (they make you jump through hoops sometimes), and the “macrostock” sites such as Alamy, Corbis, Zoonar also take shots without releases. In the case of Alamy, they automatically default to an RM license if you don’t have releases. Not completely logical, but they do. But the real thing that is going on is that they are licensing it with restrictions and making clear that they and the photographer do not have model or property releases for that image.
Personally, I’ve taken the view that I put my shots without releases only on those RM sites. Partly because they sell relatively rarely so getting more money is good, and partly because it gives me the opportunity to use those shots on Image Brief if someone wants a photo of Alexandria (which they did recently). That particular image (if you saw my post) could not be sold as commercial because of the sign, but it could be sold as editorial and my approach is to sell it only on a few bigger sites as RM/Editorial.
Hope that helps.