An Author’s Guide to Stock Photos for Book Covers

Whether you hire a book cover designer or make them yourself, there’s a good chance that your book cover will use stock photos.

While you may think you’re fine because you paid the designer or the stock photo site, what you’ll learn from reading this article is that you may not be safe at all.

It’s easy to get burned by people who are just out to make a buck, or well-meaning designers that don’t know any better. As you'll see, there are many nuances and things that both authors and designers alike don't understand.

Making a copyright mistake with your book cover can do more than cost you sales; it can get your account banned or even bring you legal troubles.

I’ve made hundreds of book covers for myself and my clients – so I know this stuff like the back of my hand. And I’ve seen the lawyers give the back of their hands to people just like us.

So no matter if you hire a professional book cover designer or design covers yourself, an understanding of the rules on stock photography and intellectual property can save you from legal woes.

In this article, you will learn:
  1. What the different stock photo rights are and what they allow you to do
  2. How to legally acquire images for your book covers
  3. How to avoid the most common mistakes indie authors make
  4. How to cover yourself for any existing covers
  5. How to stay in compliance with your stock image provider
  6. How to keep your designer on the right side of the law

LEGAL CYA: Although I’m an author with years of experience and my father was an attorney, I am not a lawyer. While this article has been designed to help educate you so that you can make better decisions, no information in this article should be taken as legal advice. When in doubt, you should rely on your personal lawyer or contact one through a company like LegalZoom.

P.S. There are some affiliate links in this article. This adds no extra cost for you, but it does help add a little to Dave's coffee fund and keeps him writing.

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The Different Levels of Rights To Stock Photos

When dealing with a stock photo site or designers, it’s important to know what level of rights you have. While this doesn’t cover every nuance or litany of the terms used in the industry, the below highlights some of the different levels of rights.

Standard License – On Shutterstock, for example, a Shutterstock Standard License allows you to use images an unlimited number of times in digital applications, which includes eBooks, websites, online ads, software, mobile applications, and online ads.

What about printed designs, such as hardcover or softcover print books?

This is why the fine print for any stock photo you use for your book cover is imperative. For Shutterstock, a standard license allows your use for up to 500,000 times in print runs.

Extended License – If there are restrictions on an image, you have to pay for an extended or enhanced license. This usually means additional fees for digital usage, print usage, or both in order to use it.  An Enhanced License offers more freedom in terms of image usage. An EL doesn't have limits on print runs or out-of-home advertising.

Editorial Use Only – Some images are labeled with “Editorial Use Only.” Shown below is 123rf's clear license policy. You aren’t allowed to use “editorial use only images” as they often contain newsworthy events, celebrities, or recognizable locations.

stock photo warning editorial use only

Right to “Alter” – Some stock photos come with a use license but without permission to alter. You will want to check that your license includes the right to “alter.” That’s critical because at a minimum you will be adding text to your book cover, and the attorneys consider that an alteration. Can you imagine getting a cease and desist notice over something like that?

You’ll at minimum lose a day of work behind it, and that’s if you’re lucky.

I’m speaking from experience here – I saw a really nice cover that I wanted to use when designing the cover for my Amazon bestseller Serve No Master. But without the alteration rights, I was out of luck. So I found a different stock image on 123rf and altered the pastel colors to make them pop from the screen.

serve no master cover image

I would have been in violation of the original artist’s intellectual property without this clear statement from my stock photo provider.

stock photo rules to follow for authors right to alter

As you can see in the l23rf license above, when my sales cross 500,000 copies, I have to purchase the extended license. I’m not quite there yet. 😉

So, in the end, depending on what stock photo site you use or your designer uses, make sure you that understand what type of license you have and any restriction it may have as well.  The above are some of the common rights, but there are many different terms and other sites describe them differently.  So, just be sure to check.

For my recent book Fire Your Boss, which you can grab for free, I combined several beach images to create the exact feel that I wanted.  Without the right to alter, I could have gotten in trouble with the original artists for merging their work together.

Because I checked with my licenses in advance, I avoided any risk of an email from an annoyed artist.

So by now you might be thinking, “Hey, all I’ve got to do is read the fine print and I’ll have a beautiful cover – all my dreams will come true.”

But there’s an extra fact that might turn your dreams into a nightmare.

Warning: You Can’t Fully Trust Stock Photo Sites

While you may pay for one of the rights above, you still might be vulnerable to a copyright infringement. Many free and paid stock photo sites have gotten in a lab with their team and put together some very complicated legalese designed to protect themselves…and not you. In essence, they have some statement that basically clears them of any wrongdoing and place all the responsibility on you…even though you paid them.

So, no matter where your images come from, you are the one ultimately responsible.  So, make sure you read the license rules for any site where you acquire content.

stock photo sites protect themselves

Above, Pixabay makes it very clear that while the photographer might have given you permission to use the image, the subject of the photo might not have.

Caveat emptor est. Let the buyer beware!

Or in this case, the downloader. Make sure you click on “learn more…”. Pixabay has a far more extensive list of photos and images that they include on their site that can get you into trouble behind that link.

Different Types of Stock Photography Sites

It turns out there are different types of stock photography sites out there and each offers different levels and styles as well:

Major Microstock Websites

Large websites for stock photos have moderators who examine the pictures that are uploaded to check the legality. Some of these stock photo sites include:

While you are generally safe with the photos purchased from these stock photo sites, you still can run into some issues. The core test is whether an element in your cover can be easily recognized as belonging to some other party. If someone looks at your book cover photos and says, “That’s Batman!” You are flying too close to the sun.

The legal test is whether a potential customer could be confused. If a regular person could see your book cover and reasonably assume it’s licensed or authorized by DC Comics, then you’re on the wrong side of the law.

Boutique Stock Photo Sites

Boutique Stock Photo Sites are platforms run by small businesses or solopreneurs. Unlike major microstock websites that have pictures or every kind, boutique stock photo sites generally stay in a genre or style and are very unique.  Two examples are:

Stock Photography Agencies

Agencies for stock photos vet their images much in the same ways as the larger Microstock  websites. These represent the gold standard of cover art and are used less commonly than microstock and boutique stock sites.

Some reputable stock photography agencies are:

As with all stock photos for book covers, be sure to check the licensing rights options that come with photos from agencies.

Social Art Providers

Many artists display their designs on major social art platforms within their individual profiles. They want to spread the word about their work and will often allow you to use their images wherever you’d like as long as it’s for non-commercial use.

If you want to use their image in something you are selling (like your book cover), each individual has their own licensing fees and terms or requirements. This can get pretty complicated. But if you see an image by an independent artist that you must have, start the process by contacting them directly. Some of these artists actually have their images available on smaller stock photo sites, which makes the licensing process far easier.

Stock Photo Sites to Be Wary Of

Here are a few picture sites that have the potential to bring you legal trouble.

Free Stock Photo Websites

Sites that sell stock photos are far stricter with their content than sites that just list free images, such as Pixabay or Pexels.

Free stock photo sites aren’t making money from their images, so if they are caught with an image that infringes on copyright they need to remove the photo, but they hopefully won’t face a financial penalty.

They aren’t using the image for commercial use. But you are.

Book Covers and Stock Photos - How to CYA!Click To Tweet

The biggest issue with these sites is when people use photos with people, aka “figurative” stocks. The subject of a photo might not care about a picture of them being on a free stock photo site, but they might not appreciate appearing on the cover of your edgy BDSM novel.

So it’s important that you always get your figurative images from a reputable site, such as the Microstock and Boutique sites mentioned earlier. When in doubt, ask your artist for links to their sources.

Cheap Artist Sites – Like Fiverr and 99Designs

There are loads of platforms where you can get cheap designs. These artists are usually paid far too little to have any concerns about copyright infringement. I'm DEFINITELY not saying all Fiverr or 99Design artists are this way, but just understand and be a bit wary.

Just because an artist says they have a license for a stock photo site, it doesn’t mean that they actually do. 

Many of my covers were designed by artists that I hired on Fiverr.  However, I always provide my own stock and figurative images just like Dave shows in this epic article on how to effectively and safely use Fiverr better for book cover designs.

As independent authors, many of us are working with a limited budget. We want to find a cover where price, quality, and copyright intersect. We want a cover we can afford, that will generate sales, and comes without the risk of a copyright lawsuit.

If you can’t afford to throw bales of cash at your book cover, the best solution is to use book cover stock photos from reputable sources and send them to an artist you can afford.

What to Do: Hire a Real Professional…They have Lots to Lose

Designers who can’t slink off under the rock from which they came have to stand by their work. They not only have a reputation to uphold, but they also need repeat customers.

That’s one thing that makes using a real book cover designer who’s truly ‘in the game’ a major benefit and increases your safety.

Here are some professional book cover design companies that would have a lot to lose if they made any of the mistakes listed above, and are ones that Dave Chesson of Kindlepreneur has not only vetted, but also used as well:

  • Reedsy – A marketplace for vetted book designers with high accomplishments in the industry. You're sure to find a cover designer with experience in your genre here.
  • Ebook Launch – Professional quality book covers at an affordable price.
  • Damonza – Professional cover design team with hundreds of books under their belt.  Also offers a 5% discount with the use of this code: KINDLE5
  • Author Packages – Affordable custom ebook and print cover designs available as well as formatting and proofreading service.

5 Ways Stock Photos & Font Can Bite You

Okay, so we now know about the license levels, the different types of stock photo sites and which ones to be wary of.  However, there are still some things that all authors need to know and look for in their stock photos.  There are a lot of ways stock photos can still hurt you. So let's dive into some examples to help you gain a better understanding, starting with the intellectual property of companies.

1. Company IP

If your book cover photos incorporate any intellectual property owned by a company that is not licensed to be used in stock photography, you open the doors for big trouble.

For example, I typed “Batman” into Pixabay, and here are my search results:

batman stock photos at pixabay

Use one of these “stock photos” on your cover, and it’s only a question of whether DC, Marvel, or Lego will come after you. Those brands you loved as a child won’t seem so friendly when they get your book removed from Amazon and sue you for every dollar of royalties your book has ever earned.

Claiming that you acquired the image from a “creative commons” site is a fig leaf that will offer little protection when the lawyers come in swinging. Yikes.

So if you recognize any part of your cover from movies, pop culture, video games, etc. that's definitely not safe to use on your cover.

2. Another Artist’s IP

This one is much harder to be aware of because any part of your design could be stolen ideas from artists who share their work online. Unlike huge companies and pop culture, design elements of individual artists are not as easy to recognize.

As an author, it's nearly impossible to know if this infringement happened. Your best bet is to ask your designer where they sourced your images. I'd like to believe the majority of professional designers understand copyright and care enough not to put you in that scary situation. But it's hard to ever be 100% sure.

3. Tattoos

When it comes to people on your cover, if they can recognize themselves, you had better have their permission.

Romance books often have a picture of a muscly hunk without his face showing. Hiding the face might make you think you’re in the clear, but a recent lawsuit shows that might not be the case.

In 2011, the artist who designed Mike Tyson’s face tattoo sued Warner Brothers for showing that tattoo on another character’s face. They settled out of court. While we don't know the details of the final agreement, we do know the artist walked away with a smile on his face.

Make sure your book cover doesn't bite like Mike TysonClick To Tweet

If you use an image of a tattooed hunk on your book cover, there appear to be three potential dangers:

  • the tattoo might include copyrighted imagery (e.g., Bart Simpson's face)
  • the tattoo artist might hold a copyright on the image
  • some copyrighted tattoos are small and can be tricky to avoid

There are quite a few female models with a tattoo of the logo of the Rebel Alliance from Star Wars. While you might not recognize the image as anything more than a tribal at first blush, do you want to be the one sued by one of the largest film franchises of all time? You might not recognize their property, but they sure will.

4. Clothing

Another thing to look out for on stock photo images for your cover design is recognizable clothing brands or logos. If a character on your cover has a big checkmark across their t-shirt, you could get an angry letter from Nike.

5. Font

While most of us realize that images have copyrights, knowledge about text often slips through the cracks. Should your cover designer use a premium font without your knowledge, you could be headed for trouble. Some fonts have free and paid versions and I have seen regular fonts that are free, while the bold version requires a special license. So it’s best to run your own research.

how to use free fonts on book covers badaboom font

For my ServeNoMaster site, I use a standard free font called Badaboom BB.

Most of us download a font we like from a free site and add it to our computer without reading the license document. But actually, it’s really important to crack open that innocuous little file. That’s where you will find this critical sentence:

“This font is freeware for independent comic book creation and non-profit use only.”

When I read that, I knew I needed to take action by going to the font designer’s website, Blambot. I read their license options and purchased the one that met my need. While you probably won’t get caught for a naughty font as quickly as you will for a naughty image, when you do get caught, it can be devastating.

So when hiring a cover designer, make sure to ask them to use public domain fonts. I always ask the artists to list the fonts they used upon delivery so I can quickly review the license on each font to make sure I’m in the clear.

As with all art on your covers, make sure you know exactly where everything came from.

How to Check if You’re Compliant

Reading this article, you may start to get worried about your existing covers. While you may not have done anything wrong intentionally, you are at risk as long as those covers are out there.

Reach out to each of your artists and ask them to provide links to the source of any stock images they used. Most artists can provide you with the information you need in a short email.

If your artist is no longer reachable, start looking for the reference art yourself. I couldn’t find the original image from my Serve No Master cover but a stock photo search for “flying man” eventually led me back to that image.

There are also several image reverse lookup tools, including:

These tools will take any image you upload and try to find similar images. You definitely want to do a check for compliance, but this is by no means a sure thing.

If you have an old cover that you discover has something unauthorized (or you just suspect it), the best course of action is to create a new cover following the recommendations of this article.

More Resources for Designing Amazing Covers

Although using stock photos for your book cover can be treacherous waters, rest assured you can develop a tier-one cover with a killer image–without breaking the bank or getting scary letters from lawyers.

Follow this simple process to design your ideal and legal cover.

  1. Find the perfect stock images or reference art yourself and purchase it from a reputable seller
  2. Hire an artist or cover designer within your budget and tell them to base all their work on the images you provide
  3. Ask your cover designer to only use license-free fonts
  4. When they deliver the final cover, ask them to list the fonts they used
  5. When in doubt, consult your personal attorney or use Legal Zoom 

Need more guidance on designing a book cover that attracts readers? Here are a few of the best guides you can use for creating a book cover that catches shoppers' attention while they’re browsing for their next book:

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40 thoughts on “An Author’s Guide to Stock Photos for Book Covers

  1. Kay Castaneda

    This is a great article. What about pre-made book covers? I like one and want to use it for a new cover. If I buy it, do I have to buy a license if I only change the book title and author name etc.?

    Kay Castaneda

  2. John Tsang

    I am curious. I am a newbie author who is going along the self publishing route. I am writing a book on the history of the English Parliament and the building itself. In my first draft I have included photos throughout the manuscript from Google images…then I discovered I couldn’t use any of them because Parliament only allows you to use the photographs for non commercial purposes. So I deleted everything and instead added a website link in the manuscript that pointed the reader to the Parliament 360 virtual site which basically means as the reader reads my book, they can go and look at the images themselves on the site! I now working on my book cover and included photographs of the Parliament building from google images and a few images from friends who have given me permission mostly inside the building. However as the building is a public building does it mean I can use that photo in the book cover without permission for commercial purposes. Also Parliament forbids any photography within the builidng except for two rooms. The images that were taken are from friends and colleagues. Does that mean I cannot use them…for commercial purposes(!). As to the question of fonts, I am using the fonts from Word which I am confused. If you are saying I have to buy a font, how does that work with Word fonts when my whole script is full of it. Otherwise it is a very useful article.

  3. Dell

    Hi Jonathan
    I am working on a book and would like to include some photos I took out in public. May I remove license plate numbers from cars parked on the street, and numbers and names from boats sitting in the water? In other words, identifying elements from objects found in public as stated here.

    1. Dave Chesson

      That should do the trick.

    2. AJValentine

      Cars and boats are branded products that are easily identified by look to their parent company. Even if you remove the license plate info you still need permission and releases from the car companies for using their product. You cannot safely use them without permissions.

  4. Angeli' D

    I want to hire you to do my book cover if you can or want to. How much do you cost?

    1. Dave Chesson

      Sorry, I don’t have any services.

  5. Renee

    Hi there! I have a question about something I just saw mentioned in a group. Someone commented that cover designers CAN NOT use the same photo on multiple covers. I’m not saying using the same design, I mean the same photo. For example, if I have a picture of a female and I want to use her in different designs, changing her up to look different, different genres and such, according to the person on the post, that is illegal and can’t be done.
    I want to respond and say they are wrong, everything I’ve read and have seen says they are wrong, but I’d like to get someone’s opinion that would actually know. If the same photo can’t be used on multiple covers, there’s a lot of designers that don’t know it.

    1. Dave Chesson

      It depends on the rights of the photo. Where did they purchase it and what does the licensing say you can and can’t do. But most likely, you’re absolutely right.

Comments are closed.