A simple introduction to fonts and font licensing.
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For fonts sake
Every time you send an email, post a blog, order a business card, ad or brochure or edit or commission a website you will in one way or the other choose a typeface and use a font. In this article we will consider some things font, in summary, what they are and where they came from and where you can access the type of font you want, but mostly this article is about font ownership and usage.
As commercial designers we choose and use typefaces everyday, for ourselves and on behalf of our clients. They are very critical to our job and a key element in our clients’ visual toolkit and often we are asked to use a clients’ font, source a new font, purchase fonts or supply artwork with fonts included. Which is actually the point of this article. To clarify what it means to ‘own’ a font, the limitations there are around ownership and sharing fonts and offer some advice on how to stay legal in the process.
First up, are we talking about fonts or typefaces?
A ‘font’ refers to a single weight, style or size of text, such as Light, Regular, Bold or Italic. An entire collection of these weights and styles make up a family known as a ‘typeface’. For simplicity we are going to use the term ‘font’ from here on
What types of font are there?
Aside from System Fonts which are pre-installed on every device these days (selection based largely on what operating system you use) there are basically two ways to access fonts – you pay or you get them for free.
The clue is in the title. Paid fonts are created by professional typographers and designers with the intention of selling them to anyone who wants permission to use them. As a result, paid fonts have to be of a high standard and quality as they are commercially sold products. Advantages of paid fonts are they will generally include the full font family, will work on multiple browsers and platforms and are compatible with different languages. For many professional designers they are the first port of call and there are many libraries out there selling them. Some of the most well known are MyFont, Letrs, Linotype, Dalton Maag, TypeTrust and Lineto
Free and Open Source Fonts
There are several types of ‘free’ fonts, foundry promotions; those made by hobbyists; pirated fonts and there are ’open source’ fonts – which are a form of free font but are now significant enough to have their own category.
Many font foundries offer free fonts as a promotion. These fonts might be a single-weight display design, or one or more weights from a larger family intended to encourage you into purchasing the rest of the family.
The availability of affordable font production software means anyone can try their hand at designing a typeface but they remain amateur and often suffer from inferior and inconsistent design traits and uneven spacing.
With the internet and commerce comes shenanigans and yes, the font world is not immune to piracy. By changing the digital data of the font (but generally not the design) and the name (i.e. Helvetica to Helmetika) it is possible for bootleg fonts to be freely accessible online.
Open Source fonts
The open source movement started in 1998 as a way for programmers to write and share software while freeing themselves from the potentially litigious connotations of the term ‘free software’. As part of a wider philosophy around community and open collaboration the idea allowed anyone to write, exchange and modify programming code without penalty. An example of open source software is MediaWiki, the software which the Wikipedia website is built.
The open source movement is a primarily concerned with software but open source fonts are now becoming increasingly important to designers and clients alike.
“Open source” effectively means you can do pretty much what you want with the fonts apart from making any money directly from them. So you can use them on any form of e-commerce or commercial site for instance but you cannot download them, modify them and then sell or licence that adapted font for financial gain.
So, can I use what I see?
With the exception of system fonts, which to our knowledge, have no restrictions on usage save system compatibility – you should assume that there are always restrictions on who and how you can use a font. If you were to ask us what the things you should take from this article, this is the first.
Think of it this way, a font is a piece of coded software. And just like any software you need to obtain a license before installing it. All fonts have licences, they are the permission slip for the purchaser or person that downloads them to use them, be that you the client or us the agency working on your behalf. Some are free. Some cost money, some licences are very relaxed about their use, some are extremely restrictive. But the point is, when you purchase or download for free, your font will always come with an ownership licence that will explain what the holder of that licence can and cannot use that font for.
This means that if you are the person acquiring the font, clearly understanding what you are allowed and not allowed to do is pretty important. Generally if you buy a font or subscribe to a font library, your usage rights will be terms of the purchase contract and should be clearly accessible. When you download a free font it will most likely come with a README file, which will outline the licensing restrictions of the font.
As we have seen above, open source fonts follow the open source principle, which means they can be used, modified, and distributed freely as long as the fonts remain under an Open Font License.
Staying font safe
First off it is just safer to consider any font that you acquire may have restrictions when it comes to commercial applications so it is always good to check before use
Remember responsibility for use of a font lies with the person who buys or downloads it, so there are clearly risks with buying a font for someone else, as you remain the one responsible for any subsequent accidental or purposeful wrong doing when using it. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t arrange the purchase of a font for your agency, or your agency cannot do the same for you, just ensure that the font purchase, and it’s licence, are correctly registered to the most appropriate person.
We have sat in both camps, having purchased a number of commercial fonts for clients and also suggested that the client buy and register licences themselves.
Here are a couple of scenarios.
We design you a new identity and logo which uses an open source font. Because it is open source we are allowed then to adapt it should we wish and then package and supply it to you. You in turn as the client are at liberty because of its open source nature, to then download it to as many machines as you want for as many users as you want.
But say we design a new logo for you with a font that we have bought from an official font foundry. You intend to use it commercially but we as your agency have no intention of ever using that font again. Here, there will be a specific font licence that outlines how many people can use the font and who the font is licenced to. If we purchase a licence for one user for example, we can package and supply that font to you, but you can only install that font on one machine. If subsequently, you pass the font to more people than the licence allows then in all likelihood you will be acting illegally and we will be in breach of the licence.
If however we find a font we like for you but also want to keep for ourselves for future creative projects, then we would need to buy at least two individual instances of the font, and it’s licence. This will allow both you the client and us the designers to install the font on our computers and safely use the font as per the licence description.
Apologies, but just to complicate matters a little more, there could also be special usage regulations in some particular cases, so you may need special permission for instance, for using a font for broadcast purposes or film or in flash animation or e-books for instance.
What this is telling us is that basically, if you are buying a font you do not then subsequently have the freedom to use that font for any number of other people for ever and in whatever way we want.
Here is a summary of the key points:
- Fonts are either paid for, free or subject to an open source software licence. You license font software from the font designer or font foundry that supplies it
- If a font is free it may not have any form of licence attached to it. This however may not be such good news as some fonts are pirated or created by non-professional designers and are therefore outside or not suitable to be subject to commercial licences.
- But most fonts will be subject to a licence that you will receive with the font that sets out exactly how you may use it software and so it
- Outside of open source fonts, most font software licences do not allow you to copy or distribute font software to companies or persons who do not also have a licence to use it.
- Outside of open source fonts most font software publishers will not allow their software to be modified in any way without permission
- Your company will be liable if you lend or give font software to others to use without a licence or if you use fonts outside of the terms of the licence.
The subject of fonts and font licensing is a little nerdy at the best of times so if you’ve got this far then well done. It is, however the source of many conversations we have with our clients on a regular basis, so we thought it a subject relevant and useful enough to attempt to shed some light on.
The bottom line is that it’s important to remember fonts are intellectual property, so it is just sensible and professional to understand the issues involved in using them. At the very least we hope you are just that little bit more aware of the types of fonts out there, how to access them, the benefits and drawbacks of each type and in general terms how font licensing works and the possible implications when the rules are not followed.