What Therapists Need To Know About Stock Image Licenses

Disclaimer: The following is intended for educational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. You should always read stock image licenses for yourself and contact a legal professional for guidance before acting on this, or any, image license content.

Mental Health Stigma Sucks

(And It Effects Your Ability To License Stock Images That Contain Humans)

Many stock image license agreements have a "defamation" clause or an "offense" clause. The clause exists to protect the reputation and feelings of the model both as a model and as a person too.

When a therapist uses images of models to market mental health it may suggest that the models in the images are struggling or have struggled with the challenges that you help with.

Even if an image source theoretically supports the destigmatization of mental health issues, these policies are in place to protect the models from potential real life implications that might occur from being seen as someone with a mental health challenge.

My guess is that as long as society continues to stigmatize, these clauses will be within the licenses of certain stock websites.

As a therapist marketing mental health, the best thing to do is continue to do the excellent work that you do which helps people heal and helps break the stigma. Perhaps someday, it won't be seen as risky or offensive to suggest that someone might suffer from depression or be a sexual abuse survivor. We all know that mental health challenges are nothing to be ashamed about, but society disagrees.

For now, all therapists should read the image licenses carefully if they would like to avoid wrongful use of the image.

Types Of Mental Health Related Restrictions In Licenses

1. Images of Models Prohibited

Many licenses will basically just say, "nope, it's not allowed to use images of models."

When reading over licenses, keep your eyes peeled for "mental health" or "mental illness" or "mental ailment." Here's an example from Shutterstock license:

YOU MAY NOT: ...Portray any person depicted in Visual Content (a "Model") in a way that a reasonable person would find offensive, including but not limited to depicting a Model: ... d) as suffering from, or medicating for, a physical or mental ailment...
- Shutterstock License

So in this case, you may not portray a model in a way that would suggest that they had a "mental ailment," which means that any use for marketing psychotherapy services is prohibited.

2. Images of Models OK with Disclaimer

Some licenses will allow you to use images for mental health as long as you have a disclaimer on the page on which the image is used.

One example of a stock photo website that allows this is istockphoto. I reached out to istockphoto.com for clarification on how to use their stock in the context of mental health:

As long as the images you would like to use are model released, then they would be fine to use with the disclaimer. The disclaimer would need to appear on the same page as the photo to ensure there is no doubt that the image is a stock photo and is posed by a model.

- istockphoto.com customer support

So in the case of istockphoto, you'd want to first make sure that there is a model release and then second make sure that there is a disclaimer on the page. As a website designer, I would recommend either captions or a site-wide disclaimer persistently in the footer.

Istockphoto is one example of stock websites that allow disclaimer use. Stock websites that have this disclaimer clause are an option if you would like images of identifiable humans on your website.

3. Images of Models Ok with Extended or Sensitive Use License Upgrade

If a stock photo website has an extended or sensitive use license available, the terms of the extended or sensitive use license may cover it's use in mental health context. Often though, the upgrade is 5-10 times more expensive than a typical standard license.

One source that does offer an extended use is stocksy.com at $250/image.

What About Anonymous Models?

There is a chance that if the model is not recognizable, you could use the image. You would want to always check over the license and with the customer service at the stock photo source to make sure that it's ok. Examples of anonymous models:

  • Something in front of the person's face
  • Silhouette
  • Blurry
  • From the back
  • Cropped to not include the head/face
  • Hands, feet, arms

Surprisingly, it's easy to find excellent photos of models that are anonymous, so I would encourage therapists to explore it. These images can give a site the human feel that it needs but without defaming any models.

Quick Index

To save you time, I have already read the license agreements from major stock websites consolodated my findings in this table.

Stock Site License Mental Health Use OK?
Adobe Stock No
Big Stock Photo No
Canva No
Death To The Stock Yes
Istock Photo With Disclaimer
Lightstock No
Shutterstock No
Stocksy No*
Think Stock Photo With Disclaimer

*For Stocksy they do have a sensitive use license available for purchse ($250/image) or you may use images in which the models are anonymous. Email their support desk if you are unclear on if model is anonymous enough and they'll let you know.

Other Things You May Want To Look Out For In Licenses

The defamation clause within license agreements which limits images being used for mental health marketing is by far the most important clause for therapists to look out for because if use is prohibited, then it doesn't even make sense to concern yourself with the rest of the terms.

That said, if you read a license and have discovered a way to use the stock images (disclaimer, sensitive use license, anonymous models only, etc) then there are still other important questions to ask when you are reading over license agreements that you will want to look out for.

  • Can I use the image on printed materials? And if so, in what context? Is there a limit to the quantity?
  • Can I use the image on an item for resale? Like a meditation CD cover? Or a yoga pillow?
  • Can I use the image full size and unedited on my website? Or is that considered a redistribution risk?

And more, always walk through the ways that you would like to use images and dig into the license to see if your specific use case is covered.

How To Protect Yourself

The worst case scenario if you violate a license is a lawsuit. So how, in addition to fully reading license agreements before you enter into them, can you protect yourself form the worst case happening?

Get Insured

For further assurance for being covered worst case scenario situations, you can also get business insurance that protects you of this liability.

If you already have business insurance for your practice, you can reach out to them and see if you are already covered for such damages to other parties.

Or, if you don't have insurance, it's pretty affordable and can cover the cost of a lawsuit should one be brought against you.

Get Legal Counsel

One thing you may want to consider is legal counsel. The support desks at stock websites are not always well informed about what is in their license. For example, in researching for this article, I reached out to twenty20.com and was advised I could use any images with a model release for any commercial purpose including for marketing mental health.

However, upon reading their own license myself, discovered that there was in fact a clause about using images for mental health being prohibited.

So! Basically for the most security possible, you may want to go over any stock image license agreement with a lawyer to ensure you could use the images your license in the way that you'd like to.

Alternative To Using Stock Images

In Case You're Thinking: Jeesh, This License Stuff Is A Lot Of Work!
  • Collect your friends
  • Hire a photographer
  • Take photos of your friends (call it a party!)
  • Have your friends sign releases to the images for you to use any way that you'd like including for marketing mental health services
  • Use the images 100% risk free

In Conclusion: It's Worth It For Your Clients

The benefit of using images on your marketing materials outweighs the effort you may need to invest into discovering how to do that.

It's not always a good fit to use images of lotus flowers and waterfalls. These images can be done well but are they the good fit images for your best fit client? Maybe, maybe not.

In most cases, including human situations and humans in your stock will help your best fit client relate to your message and will help them put themselves in the seat of the model in the picture.

Visual communication is immediate and is a different sort of communication than just words alone. Images rock! So now it's just a matter of finding ones that work, both in terms of the message and in terms of a license agreement that enables you to use them.


About Kat Love

Hi, I'm Kat! I'm the founder and lead designer here at Empathysites. Therapists helped me heal from childhood sexual abuse so now I help therapists with creating their websites. I write on topics like website design, strategy, and turning website visitors into clients. Reach out anytime if you'd like to say hi. PS. my pronouns are they/them/their. Thanks.