The font issue: Is your company playing by the rules?
Learn about font licensing agreements from someone who actually reads the fine print
You know that little check box you have to click on every time you download or buy something online? Let’s be honest here, do you really know what you’re agreeing to when you check that box? Unfortunately, licensing and copyright infringement are some of the most common issues in the design industry. I see it happen all the time — you may be in possession of software and images that you’re not licensed to use and not even know it! This is usually due to a lack of awareness or diligence when it comes to licensing agreements. I’d like to unpack this issue so your company (or clients) can ensure they are using legit and properly licensed fonts.
Now, it’s worth mentioning that fonts included with programs such as Microsoft Word and Adobe Creative Cloud are usually licensed for commercial use. However, as designers, we want to create work that is beautiful and different, so we tend to look beyond the basic font choices for our projects. There are tens of thousands of fonts out there, and more and more are created every day. As a result, there are licensing concerns you should be aware of before using and sharing font software. The devil’s in the details, so here’s the nitty-gritty.
What is a font?
A font (also known as a typeface) is a set of characters in a particular size and style that is used to display text. Most people don’t realize that fonts are actually software. So, unless your fonts are free for commercial use, you must purchase a license to use font software.
⚖️ Commercial versus personal use
Examples of commercial use are logos, business cards, websites, and any communication materials that you use for business, whether internal or external. Personal use would be something you’re not financially benefitting from, such as a school project.
🔮 Beware of “free” fonts
People mistakenly believe that just because they’ve downloaded a font for free, that it is free. However, the web is brimming with fonts that are pirated, unlawfully distributed, or free for personal use only. These fonts have become so widespread and easily accessible that it can be difficult to tell if they’re legit. Can you imagine if your company logo was created with a pirated font?
The bottom line: Unless you download the font from a reputable website that states it is free for commercial use, it’s probably not free.
The good news is that high quality licensed fonts are affordable.
💰 What are the costs?
Font licensing fees can range from less than $20 to hundreds of dollars. Companies such as Fontspring, MyFonts and Linotype charge a one-time fee per license, while others such as Adobe Typekit are subscription-based.
What is an End-User Licence Agreement (EULA)?
Fonts typically come with an End-User License Agreement (EULA) that you can find on the distributor’s website. This agreement details all the different types of licenses they offer, and any rules and restrictions you must follow. When I purchase a font license on behalf of a client, I send them a receipt along with a link to the vendor’s website so they can read the EULA first-hand.
🤝 What types of licenses are there?
There are separate font licenses for desktop and online usage. Desktop licenses are for offline items such as printed advertisements, books, magazines, t-shirts and even logos.
Online licenses are further broken down into separate categories for web fonts (when a “live” font is used on a website via CSS), and embedding in applications, e-books, and digital advertisements using HTML5.
If there’s a font that you plan to use across all of your company’s communication materials, it’s probably a good idea to purchase the desktop and web font licences to start with. Keep in mind that desktop fonts are a different file type than web fonts.
🤔 What is a live font and how is it different from a rasterized or outlined font?
EULAs may refer to live, rasterized and outlined fonts, so it’s helpful to know the difference, especially since you can sometimes use a desktop license online if the font is rasterized or outlined.
The font used in this article is a live font. You can highlight, copy and paste the text if you wanted. When a font is live, it’s in its original state. With a rasterized or outlined font, you can no longer highlight or copy and paste the text because it has been turned into a graphic. Rather than using font software, the words are now a picture. This can be a strange concept to grasp, so here’s an example:
- This is a live font. You can highlight and copy/paste this text.
Text is automatically rasterized in JPG and PNG files since these are raster image file formats. It’s also possible to rasterize or outline the text inside virtually any other file format. Since the text has essentially been turned into a picture when it’s rasterized or outlined, in these cases it may be possible to use a desktop license for online use.
I didn’t go into the difference between rasterized and outlined text because EULAs usually group these two in the same category. But if you’re curious, here’s a quick explanation: Rasterized text is when it has been converted to a pixel-based graphic format such as a JPG or PNG. Outlined text is when it has been converted to a graphic but remains in a vector-based file format such as an EPS, SVG or AI.
✋ Common restrictions and limitations
You should be aware of two restrictions commonly found in EULAs. (FYI: This also applies to stock images).
- The number of people who may use the licensed fonts, or the number of computers the licensed fonts may be installed on is usually limited. You have to pay for extra “seat” licenses if you want to install the fonts on additional computers, and you may have to get a new license all together if you want to send the fonts to another organization.
- You may be limited to a maximum number of printed materials or online impressions (i.e., page views on a website) using a font. If there’s a limit, you’ll have to upgrade your license and pay additional fees to go beyond.
This can become difficult to keep track of, especially if your design or digital agency has licensed these resources to themselves and proceeded to use them on multiple projects. 🤦♀️
I’ve seen companies thoughtlessly send unlicensed fonts to their clients so they can use them as well. That really does a disservice to the client who is now using unlicensed copyrighted software for their business. Even if the service provider has a license, it doesn’t necessarily cover their client to use it. If all of this sounds confusing, here’s an example: Let’s say you hire someone to design a PowerPoint presentation for you, but you don’t actually have this software. So, when the project is done, they send you the completed PowerPoint presentation, along with the Microsoft PowerPoint program as well. Your designer may have paid for a license to use the software, but since you didn’t, you’re now using pirated software. Do you see how this is probably not a great idea?
🙏 Google Fonts: a saving grace
If you don’t want to ever think about font licensing fees and limitations, I highly recommend Google Fonts. There are hundreds of Google Fonts to choose from, and they’re free for commercial use under the SIL Open Font License (OFL). You can use them wherever and however you please without restrictions, so it’s just one less thing your business has to think about. Even large companies such as Starbucks, YouTube and Deloitte use Google Fonts.
It’s important to know where your service provider gets its resources from. So, unless you’ve supplied them with your own company fonts and graphics, I recommend just asking. The exact details in EULAs vary from vendor to vendor, so I suggest you read it every time you purchase a license for a font, stock image, or any other resource. Always check whether you should buy a license under your own company name or if your service provider’s license will cover you. And lastly, make sure you have the correct license for your usage.
The stock image issue: Is your company playing by the rules?
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