Many graphic designers have a tool in their creative arsenal that aids in creating fantastic designs quickly: stock imagery. Stock images are all over the place – in online ads, corporate websites, highway billboards, you name it – although chances are, you haven’t really thought much about it. Think back to the last ad you saw featuring unusually attractive people who seem just a little too happy to be at work (or shopping, or eating dinner, or visiting a doctor)—probably stock!

How does stock imagery impact you, and your contest? Here we’ll teach you how to better identify stock images in your designs and how to properly secure the rights to use them. 99designs’ policy prohibits designers from using stock images in logo design contests, but they’re free to incorporate them into submissions for other types of design contests.

While designers are required to notify you if stock imagery is used, it’s helpful to have a basic understanding of stock so you know what to look out for.

1. What exactly is a stock image?

As you’ve likely guessed by now, stock images have nothing to do with investing, shares or Wall Street. But the creator is paid for them! Stock images are professionally designed or photographed images sold or licensed for use to the buyer or licensee.

Designers often incorporate stock images into their designs to provide clients with high-quality photos without having to put resources into creating their own images. If graphic designers had to line up photo shoots every time a client wanted to incorporate a shot of a couple guys in suits exiting a building or a city skyline on a blue-sky day, you can imagine how difficult it would be to get the actual design work done!

The stock images used on 99designs usually fall into one of two stock categories: photographs and vector images.

Some of the larger stock photograph distribution companies include Getty Images, Corbis, ShutterStock, and iStockphoto. Designers are able to browse libraries of thousands of photos and select one that is appropriate for your design requirements.

2. Will designers tell me when they’re using stock?

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As we mentioned, our designers aren’t allowed to use stock images in logo design contests. When they use them in any other design contest categories they’re required to inform the contest holders. Our support team actively identifies and reprimands designers who fail to do this—we take it very seriously!

The notification you should receive will also include a link to the image so that you can easily navigate to its source and purchase the appropriate license, as seen above.

3. The licensing process

Licenses for stock images are generally divided into two types:

Royalty-free means that once someone has purchased a license to an image they can use that image multiple times without paying any additional fees to do so. That said, there may be some restrictions, so it’s important to review the terms and conditions of the license to be aware of any of its limitations.

Rights-managed images are generally restricted in terms of usage – limitations may include industry, geographic location or the duration for which the image can be used.

License fees vary widely, but they’re not generally steep – usually you’ll dole out no more than the sum total of your weekly Starbucks habit—for the non-coffee drinkers out there: you can expect to pay in the $20-$50 range to license an image.

Not having the appropriate license to use a stock image can cost you big time. Companies who own these images can and will pursue you legally if you’re found to be using an image that hasn’t been licensed properly, and penalties can range into the thousands. Many stock images contain coded tracking information that, even if the image is altered or modified, makes them quite easy to locate.

If you’re unsure what type of license you’ll need to purchase for a particular image, be sure to contact the company who owns it and ensure you’ll be covered.

The vast majority of companies who use stock images in their branding and marketing materials have no legal issues at all, so don’t be scared off. There’s absolutely no reason to avoid designs with stock images – they’re the basis of many extraordinary designs! Still, it’s good to have a basic grasp on what stock images look like and how to recognize them at a glance.

4. How to spot stock

The easiest way to identify a stock image is to look for a watermark on the image itself. This watermark will often indicate the source of the image, as seen below:

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Stock image (via Shutterstock)

Generally, any photographs included in your design are most likely stock photographs. Unless the designer actually took the photograph, chances are they obtained it from an internet resource and it may require a license. Ask the designer for the source of the image and for a direct link to the source as well.

It can be a bit more difficult to determine if non-photographic images are stock. One way to check is to use reverse image search platforms like Google Images or, which allow you to upload the image and search it against billions of others. If the image doesn’t turn up, chances are it’s original.

If you’re not sure, don’t hesitate to ask the designer where they obtained it or contact 99designs Customer Support to assist you. If a designer offers to secure the rights to a stock image for you, bear in mind that the license of stock images generally isn’t transferrable and the 99designs copyright contract does not provide for this transfer. Our designers should know that, but ultimately it’s your responsibility. Instead, you’ll want to directly purchase the license to the images on your own.

This may sound like a lot of work, but in reality, it all boils down to just a few extra minutes of your time. And with all of the effort you put day in and day out into making your business a success, it’s certainly worth it to ensure you’ll be able to use your new design, hassle-free, for years to come.