A quick guide to fonts and font usage

Every time you send an email, post a blog, order a business card, advert or brochure, or edit or commission a website, you will have chosen a typeface and used a font.

This article, will consider what fonts are, where they come from and where you can access them, but what we really want to do here is clarify what it means to ‘own’ a font, explain the limitations 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 specific weight, style or size of text type, such as Light, Regular, Bold or Italic. An entire collection of these weights, styles and sizes 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 (giving you a selection based largely on what operating system you use), there are basically two types of font, those you pay for and those you can get for free.

Paid fonts

The clue is in the title. Paid fonts are created by professional typographers and designers to sell to anyone who wants permission to use them. As commercially sold products, paid fonts have to be of a high quality. 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 ‘open source’ fonts.

Foundry promotions

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 to purchase the rest of the family.

The hobbyists

The availability of affordable font production software means anyone can try their hand at designing a typeface, but fonts made by hobbyists can often look amateur, suffering from inferior and inconsistent design traits and uneven spacing.

The pirates

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 (e.g. Helvetica to Helmetika), pirates are able to create bootleg fonts and offer them freely online.

Open source fonts

Open source fonts are a form of free font but are now significant enough to have their own category. 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’. An example of open source software is MediaWiki, the software used to build the Wikipedia website. The open source movement is primarily concerned with software, but today, fonts are becoming increasingly important within the movement.

‘Open source’ effectively means you can do pretty much what you want with the fonts apart from making money from them. So, for instance, you can use them on any form of e-commerce or commercial site, but you cannot download them, modify them or then sell or license them for financial gain.

Google fonts, are a good example, as are Font Library, Open Foundry and Font Squirrel.

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 there are always restrictions on who can use a font and how you can use it. If you were to take anything from this article, this is it.

Think of it this way: a font is a piece of coded software. And as with any software, you need to obtain a licence before installing it. All fonts have licences: the permission slips 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 are very flexible and some are extremely restrictive. But the point is, whether you have purchased or downloaded it 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 if you are the person acquiring the font, it is pretty important that you clearly understand what you are allowed and not allowed to do because the responsibility for the use of that font lies with you and you remain the one responsible for any subsequent accidental or purposeful wrongdoing 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 its licence, are correctly registered to the most appropriate person.

Here is a summary of the key points:

  1. Fonts are either paid for, free or subject to an open source software licence. If a font is free, it may not have a licence but this may not be such good news as these fonts may have been pirated or created by non-professional designers.
  2. However, most fonts will be subject to a licence issued by the font designer or font foundry that supplied it, that sets out exactly how you may use it.
  3. Apart from open source fonts, most licences do not allow you to copy or distribute font software to companies or people who do not also have a licence to use them.
  4. Apart from publishers of open source fonts, most font software publishers will not allow their software to be modified in any way.
  5. 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 the terms of the licence.

In conclusion

The subject of fonts and font licensing is a little nerdy at best, so if you’ve got this far, then well done. It is, however the source of many conversations we regularly have with our clients, so we thought it a subject both relevant and useful. 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. We hope you are now 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 you don’t follow the rules.