Taking Stock of Your Stock Footage

Much like crowdfunding websites like Kickstarter or Indiegogo have created a platform for individuals to fund projects or receive crowdsourced investments, stock footage websites like Shutterstock or iStockPhoto enable videographers to upload and profit from their footage or obtain previously recorded video for their projects in order to save both time and money.

These platforms have dramatically increased the amount and quality of stock footage available, making it that much easier to put together high-quality video. Now, if you’re filming a movie set in New York City, you can shoot the action on the ground with your own equipment and enhance your work with stock footage of, say, aerial views of midtown Manhattan shot from a drone or a helicopter.

On the other hand, you may be a videographer with high-quality footage that you think others might want to use. You can upload your shots on any stock media website and make some extra cash.

In either scenario, you should be aware of the different types of licenses and what they mean. So, what are these licenses all about?

Types of stock footage licenses

The royalty-free license is the baseline license type in the stock footage industry. Royalty-free means that the person who purchased the license, or the licensee, has the right to use that stock footage without having to pay each time the footage is used and displayed.

Depending on where you get your footage, even simple royalty-free licenses can differ. For example, Shutterstock’s terms of service state that a regular footage license grants the right to use footage “in Productions (i.e., a film, video, television series, advertisement, or other multimedia production) displayed or distributed to the public by any means now known or hereafter devised; in connection with a live performance; [or] on websites.” This broad language, on its face, means that the licensee can use the stock footage on any number of projects displayed to the public in any way.

Depending on where you get your footage, even simple royalty-free licenses can differ

By contrast, Envato Market, which operates videohive.net, breaks out its licenses into “Single Use” and “Multi-Use.” The former restricts the use of stock footage to one “end product” such as a single commercial or advertisement, while the latter allows the licensee to use their purchased stock footage in multiple end products such as commercials, website videos and short films.

A few other, less common license permutations exist. Dissolve.com offers “rights managed” content that allows the licensee of that content to customize their license by their desired medium (TV, film, etc.), usage (theater, online advertising, etc.), scale (the audience size and scope), and duration of the project. Dissolve.com notes that the advantages here are distinctive content and style, restrictive licensing for only the uses needed and exclusivity. The site states, “you may request usage history, allowing you to ensure your clip or photo is being used in an original or unique context compared to previous usages.” This goes to the uniqueness of your project, which may be worth the likely premium cost for this type of license.

Then there’s exclusivity. Most of the time stock footage licenses are non-exclusive, meaning that your use of stock footage does not exclude others from using the very same footage. While iStockPhoto’s licenses are all non-exclusive, Dissolve.com offers a type of license that allows for exclusivity. In fact, they remove the clip or photo from their collection for the duration of the license, barring others from using it until you are done with it. When available, this type of license is likely more expensive, though it ensures an even greater level of uniqueness in your video project.

Finally, there is stock footage that lives in the public domain. This footage is either created by an entity not subject to copyright protection, like the United States government, or its copyright has simply expired. Interestingly, this footage is not always available for free, though the fees are often related to the host site’s obtaining or maintaining the footage, especially where it might have originated on old film and had to be remastered to be useful.

What is the best type of stock footage for you?

As a buyer of stock footage, it all depends on your end goal and budget. If you have money to spend and are looking to enhance your video project with unique footage, an exclusive, royalty-free license from a site like Dissolve.com might be a good option. On the other hand, a more standard royalty-free license may be sufficient for a smaller project, particularly on a tight budget. Some websites, such as videvo.com, even offer free stock footage, though it is sometimes watermarked.

As a creator of stock footage, it’s important to weigh the cost and benefit of each type of license. If you want as many people to have access to your stock footage as possible, allow for strict non-exclusivity. However, if you want to charge a higher price for your stock footage and limit its use, earmark it as managed content on a site like Dissolve.com and allow it to be used more selectively by licensees.

Protecting your footage

When you create stock footage, rest assured that the law is there to protect you. First and foremost, license agreements create contractual obligations between the licensee and the host site of your footage. If the licensee breaches the license agreement, the license may be terminated — often immediately — and continued use of your footage may be considered a breach of contract.

In addition, copyright law provides protection against unlawful use of your stock footage. Licenses like the ones outlined above limit the use of your footage, and violating those terms can constitute a violation of your copyright rights. For example, a single-use license holder who decides to use your footage for two projects is in violation of his or her license and your copyright on one of those projects. Most if not all of the websites that host stock footage have hotlines to call in the event of an issue, and some of them have in-house attorneys who can help.

And don’t worry, as a consumer of stock footage for a larger project, you can protect your project, including the stock footage from whatever source, under the copyright law. You should identify the stock footage as pre-existing material on your application. Your copyright rights attach to your work automatically when you create it, but you can also officially register your work in the U.S. Copyright Office to obtain other benefits. More information is available at the Copyright Office website, www.copyright.gov.

As always, we recommend speaking to an attorney if you have questions about your footage, want advice on how to go about licensing or protecting it, or are a user of stock footage and want to be sure you’re in the clear with your project.

Roman Zelichenko, based in New York City, is a business consultant with intellectual property experience, and has drafted legal opinions and articles on the subject. Mark Levy is a movie maker and intellectual property attorney based in Colorado.

Mark Levy has been contributing articles to Videomaker magazine since 1988. He is past president of the Amateur Movie Makers Association and has won awards internationally for his short films and videos. He practices intellectual property law (patents, trademarks, and copyrights) in Evergreen, Colorado.