What is the difference between Commercial and Editorial content?

The simple answer to the difference between commercial and editorial content is how that content is permitted to be used.  What classifies an image, clip, or illustration as commercial or editorial is slightly more complex, but understanding the difference is very important as it will inform how you photograph, film, or illustrate your next project and how that content can be licensed.
Content that is licensed for commercial use has many more restrictions than content that is licensed for editorial use because commercial content is used for advertising and promotional purposes. For commercial content, permission is required from property owners, artists, and recognizable people in the image, whereas editorial content does not because this content is used for the public good via news outlets.
How Commercial Content Can Be Used
As the name suggests, commercial content can be used to commercialize, monetize, sell, promote, and advertise a product, business or service. It could be used on a billboard, a website, a blog, a brochure, a Facebook Ad, or even a television commercial. 
As an example, let’s say a travel agency wants to promote its day trips from Rio de Janeiro and needs a photo for their website.  The photo they are looking for will be for commercial purposes as an advertisement for their travel agency to attract customers who will hopefully purchase a tour package.  
The image below would be an appropriate choice.  It has a signed model release from the woman authorizing the photographer to license the images to stock agencies. There are also no logos or brand names on her clothing, and this location, Ilha Grande, is not restricted, therefore, this image can be licensed for commercial use. 

User-added image

Woman walking along the beach on Ilha Grande off the coast of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil by Heather Shimmin

Requirements for Commercial Content
Generally speaking, commercial content requires:
  • Permission from every recognizable person in the image in the form of a signed and valid model release which allows the photographer (filmmaker or illustrator) to license the content commercially
  • Signed and valid property releases, if applicable, for recognizable private property, artwork, graffiti, and tattoos granting permission from the property owner to commercially license the content (read more about property releases for the specifics on when they are needed and what information is required)
  • No visible trademarks, company names or logos be present in the content
  • That the image is free of any intellectual property infringements
  • That the location, object, or event is not restricted 
How Editorial Content Can Be Used
Editorial is the opposite of commercial in that editorial content cannot be used to sell, promote, or monetize a business, product or service.  It can contain logos, business names and recognizable people without model releases.  Editorial content CANNOT be used to monetize a business but can be used for news or educational purposes. This type of editorial is referred to as documentary editorial.  News organizations, such as the BBC or The New York Times, will often use stock imagery in their news feeds to illustrate a story, event, or news development.

For example, the Guardian UK may use an image taken inside a Starbuck’s coffee shop to accompany a story about the company earnings, a change in leadership, or a major company announcement. Although this image is not documenting an event per se, it is documenting how people use a public space and interact with a business.  This image was not posed or digitally altered.  It is documenting a moment in time.  Please refer to the Documentary Editorial blog post for a more in-depth discussion.

User-added imageLONDON - 9 SEPTEMBER 2016: Starbucks Cafe in Heathrow Airport, London, England. People enjoying a coffee at the airport inside a stylish Starbucks with warm lighting, soft chairs, and marquee lights.​ by Heather Shimmin

Requirements for Documentary Editorial Content
Editorial content must:
  • Document a newsworthy story or event
  • Not have the subjects posed or movements directed by the photographerA posed family portrait that does not have signed releases, for example, does not qualify as documentary editorial
  • Not be altered in post-production (cropping, exposure adjustments and conversion to black and white are acceptable)
  • Have a proper editorial caption including location, date, and a factual description of the event, preferably in this format: CITY - DATE: Description of scene.
Shutterstock follows AP Style Guidelines and allows standalone cities (well known cities such as London, New York, and Moscow) which do not require the state and country in the editorial caption. 
Unlike commercial content, documentary editorial, in the main, does not need to have model and property releases and can contain business names and logos. However, many locations and events have specific restrictions which are listed on the Known Image Restrictions page.  A few restricted locations and events are:
  • Burning Man
  • The Atonium in Belgium
  • All Brazilian National Parks
  • All National Trust Properties
Even though images of events such as concerts, horse races, football matches, or fashion shows do not require model releases and can contain logos, they may require press credentials. Credentials are acquired through the venue and grant a photographer permission to photograph or film an event.

Another type of editorial content is Illustrative Editorial.  Illustrative editorial content creatively tells a story, idea, or concept that could be used to illustrate news, current events, or a subject of human interest.  For example, this image of Barbie dolls in a cemetery could accompany a story about the death of childhood or coping with loss.  It is clearly staged but has a story to tell and conveys a concept. This image cannot be licensed commercially because Ken and Barbie would violate the intellectual property rights of Mattel, the creator and copyright owner of the dolls. Please refer to the Illustrative Editorial blog post for more information on submitting this type of content.

User-added imageProvo, UT, USA - November 7, 2004: Barbie dolls gather at the cemetery around the open casket, attending Ken's funeral by Heather Shimmin
Requirements for Illustrative Editorial Content
Illustrative Editorial content must:
  • Include “illustrative editorial” or “illustrative” and “editorial” in the keywords
  • Have a proper editorial caption including location, date, and a factual description of the event, preferably in this format: CITY - DATE: Description of scene.
  • Convey a concept or tell a story
  • Not isolate a brand name or logo (logo fills the entire frame)
  • Not contain an isolated packaged toys or figurines
Here are some additional resources you may find helpful:
Shutterstock Contributor Blog:

Submitting Editorial Content, Part 1: Illustrative Editorial
Submitting Editorial Content, Part 2: Documentary Editorial​
Understanding Property Releases
Now Accepting: Editorial Illustrations and Vectors

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