To save you some time:
1. Font licensing – let’s clear up the confusion
2. Font vs typeface in licensing
3. How did font licensing become necessary?
4. Definition of font licensing
5. Who has control over font licenses?
6. What is an End-User License Agreement (EULA)?
7. Personal vs commercial projects
8. Font licensing examples available out there
9. Font licensing costs
10. Fontfabric’s licensing policy
11. Type designers answer frequently asked questions
Font licensing — let’s clear up the confusion
On a regular monthly basis we answer hundreds of questions regarding licensing for free, off-the-shelf and custom fonts. From queries like “Can I use this typeface for my logo?” to “Can I modify the letter forms of a font?” the community points to a general head-scratcher that needs additional explanation.
In our 12 years of experience in the type world, at Fontfabric we witnessed how the question of legality around typefaces makes and breaks both professional and personal projects. As a type foundry, we’re involved in daily struggles around proper font licensing and strive to translate the legal terms in a comprehensive language, so we help people like you make an informed decision.
However, understanding the practical and legal basis of font licensing does not require the services of a dedicated team of lawyers.
Let’s explore your independent role in the typefaces’ research and answer the most frequently asked questions when it comes to using fonts justly.
Typeface vs font in licensing
You probably already have your fair share of “we’ll be using the words “font” and “typeface” interchangeably” and when on the topic of licensing this approach couldn’t be more wrong.
- A typeface is a set of letters, numbers and symbols that share a consistent design look, therefore having nothing to do with the actual piece of data that is licensed.
- A font, on the other hand, comes in the form of a computer file, software or a program that sends a signal to your computer to display each character in a certain way.
In conclusion, typefaces are subject to copyright, whereas fonts are protected by software licenses depending on the use case.
How did font licensing become necessary?
Understanding font licensing requires a short travel back in time. Both physical fonts (used for more than 500 years) and 20th century phototypesetting disks were limited to a local use and one typesetter working with a font at any given time.
In the 1980s desktop publishing was invented and fonts became digital, which in turn made font licensing necessary, as every font was now a software product.
Picture a designer sitting behind a computer attached to output devices like printers and image setters. The first licenses were specifically arranged to be used on a computer attached to output devices (printers and image setters) allowing only a small number of CPUs (central processing unit — picture it as the brain of your computer) and output devices. However, over the years font licenses slowly shifted and incorporated additional metrics and pricing models.
This principle is key when exploring the basics of font licensing. Today, font licensing costs are based on quantitative parameters such as: the number of users, the number of devices the font is going to be installed on or the number of views a website gets.
Definition of font licensing
When fonts were still physical objects (movable-type used woodblock letters and metal ones later on) you couldn’t become the owner of the type design itself, but you could own the physical medium to which the design was tied to. Digital objects on the other hand can’t work like this, as they are a piece of data (that any user could duplicate and share at any given time) with no physical medium attached. Fonts are first and foremost a software product and as such are subjects of licensing.
Legally there can be only one owner and that is the owner of the typeface itself. The owner can therefore make the content available to others through licensing. In a former sense it means that:
Font licensing is the act of granting permission to use a digital font in a specific way.
So, when you buy a font you actually obtain permissions to use it according to the conditions outlined in the specific font license. These need to be clearly defined in an official document that binds you and the owner of the digital font with a contract that is to be respected on both sides.
Who has control over font licenses?
When purchasing retail or downloading free fonts you become a licensee and are issued a license for a specific use. The people who have exclusive rights over a digital font are the sole creators of the software product. The ones who have control over the font licenses on the other hand, could be the creators, but also the vendors of the fonts — such as type foundries like ourselves (or independent type designers) and resellers like MyFonts, FontSpring, FontShop, etc.
The majority of digital products users (ourselves included) have at one point or another skipped reading the terms and conditions when downloading or purchasing online. Keep in mind that when researching for a new font you should always be presented with a license agreement beforehand and read the document in detail before committing to your final decision. Once you’ve completed the transaction the license that was issued to you cannot be changed. It can either be revoked (if you’ve been in breach of the contract) or it can expire (if it’s issued for a set period of time).
What is an End-User License Agreement (EULA)?
The conditions you agree to when purchasing a paid font or downloading a free one are arranged in an End-User License Agreement (or EULA for short). This agreement states all types of licenses offered, along with any rules and limits you (and your client when working for hire) are bound to follow.
The are two types of user licenses:
- Standard End-User License
- Custom End-User License
Standard End-User License
A Standard User License is issued with individual font purchases on platforms and is most commonly predefined. As it is issued for popular uses of fonts, the standard user license includes typical terms and conditions, fixed for individuals, small teams and larger companies.
Custom End-User License
Catering specific inquiries mostly by companies, the custom end-user licenses might include a higher number of users (or an unlimited one), additional licenses for video, app creation, transferable rights, etc. Pricing is tailored to the scope of the company after a professional consultation and negotiations with the font’s owners.
Now that we’ve covered the question of legality, let’s move on to the more practical steps to successfully choosing the right font.
Personal vs commercial projects
Naturally, it’s time to establish what your main goals for using a font would be. In a nutshell, there are two general types of usage — personal and commercial.
Examples of personal use
Also known as private use, it would be something you develop independently and without direct commercial intent — your own website, a university project or a DIY design of a poster for a birthday gift.
Typically, a desktop license covers just about anything you are willing to create on your computer. If you’re a student and on a tight budget as it is, it’s very likely that you already have a good amount of typefaces to choose from, that come with softwares on your computer, so make sure you’ve checked this guilt-free collection. It can carry most personal projects in a breeze.
Psst, in addition to our well-known free fonts, we’re currently working on developing fonts for personal use specifically. Stay tuned!
Commercial font licensing
When it comes to commercial use, licensing includes all types of communication materials that you would use for business (both internal and external) and on behalf of your clients — logos, business cards, websites, banner ads, etc.
Working on behalf of clients means you’re responsible for navigating them through the whole process of choosing the right fonts. Always make sure that the fonts in mind come with proper licensing and that all the client’s needs are met in the EULA.
Font licensing examples available out there
What you plan to do with a font is the most relevant indicator of what licensing types you need to research. A single font can undergo many practical use cases, so we organised real-life font licensing examples that may concern you (as an End User) into two categories:
1. Popular licenses
Probably the most common option out there, this licence covers most commercial font usage. The desktop license enables you to create graphical designs (logos, print collateral, signs, etc.) and products (all offline merchandise included) for yourself and your clients. The final products may be sold for profit as long as the letters are not the main selling point of your product. Embedding fonts with a desktop license is limited in most cases with a few exceptions (such as a .pdf report).
This license is limited by the number of “users” and devices using the font. Practically, it enables you to install a font on your computer and use it for a whole range of offline purposes.
Keep in mind that the number of users allowed to install the font under the issued license should not be exceeded. One thing that is strictly illicit is to give the desktop licensed fonts to your clients. If this is the case, they will need to purchase their own desktop license.
A web font license enables you to embed font files into the CSS code of your website.
You will be provided with instructions and special files that are built for the web, so when properly embedded the fonts will display on the end user’s screen correctly. When using a web font you may be asked to embed some code in your website so that the vendor or the foundry can track your traffic and make sure you’re not cutting corners with your licenses.
When users access your website, their web browser will automatically download your embedded fonts temporarily for the session.
Specifying fonts for web copy is different from using fonts for desktop publishing or word processing applications, where any way to select a block of text and apply a font or style counts.
Keep in mind that if you plan to use a static image (also called rasterized image) that includes a font in a web environment, you won’t need a web font license, but a desktop one.
Web fonts are limited by monthly “page views”, which measure the traffic of users to your web pages. On rare occasions, web font licenses will have no traffic restrictions and work on a limited time and/or domain basis instead.
If you or your clients plan to create an accompanying app in addition to the website, the web font license excludes the use of fonts in the application software. If you need to embed a font in an app’s code, you’ll need a separate app font license to do so. Most commonly, these come on a per-app basis and costs may ramp up as the user base grows.
The same goes for ePub formats – for example digital books and digital magazines. Beware the licensing conditions over here, as you may need to re-license a font if you update and release a new version of an ebook, or you may need to purchase a new license for each issue of the magazine you put out. There also may be requirements regarding readership numbers and timescale, so read the agreement thoroughly before buying.
If you’re pursuing an online business that sells customizable products, you might want to research the server font license. It is most commonly used in print on demand platforms, which enable customers to personalize white-label products (like T-shirts, tote bags, etc.) with their own typesetting using the provided fonts. This type of license may have a time limit and you may need to purchase a license for each CPU in your server package.
A common scenario in the design industry is when you work at a marketing agency to design HTML banners and/or other digitally embedded dynamic ads for your clients. The fonts you usе are installed on third party websites for the duration of the ad and therefore need proper licensing. A typical misconception is that you need a font license for digital ads when using static (rasterized) images for banner ads. Myth busted – in this case all you’ll need is a desktop license.
Easily the most popular font licensing option out there, but also the trickiest. Many of the free fonts offered on the market lack the quality you get with fonts designed by a reputable foundry. Always read the agreement before committing to a final choice and if such is not provided beforehand, better research other sources.
Often designers prefer to use the font catalogs provided by SIL, Apache, Google Fonts, etc. All fonts included come with an Open Font License (or OFL in short) – a free software license that permits the fonts to be used, modified and distributed freely. This type of license is as liberal as it gets when it comes to deriving another font from an existing one and even naming it (as long as the resulting fonts remain under the OFL).
Many excellent free fonts are available with a guilt-free licensing and while on the topic you might want to go and check some of the most popular free fonts we’ve designed over the years. There’s even one coming from another galaxy!
2. Additional licenses
These cater the more specific needs individuals, companies and corporations have, thus falling into the category of custom font licensing, where both the conditions, and the pricing are evaluated based on each use case, additional research and the project’s scope after a discussion and consultation with the font’s owners.
- Analog Distribution & Product Creation
- App Creation
- Website templates
- OEM Embedding
Broadcast licensing refers to anything related to using font software for onscreen broadcasting via television, film or video and specifically for dynamic text which is used for titling, credits, etc. Production companies, studios and individual creatives (such as vloggers) need to contact us to use any of our fonts for broadcasting purposes.
When working on a new commercial game, game developers always include font research into their software development. Gaming licenses for fonts are very similar to app licenses and their pricing would depend on the scope of the game and the number of users it would potentially attract. High quality fonts compliment the compound effect on gameplay typography and user experience.
Analog Distribution & Product Creation
Falling into the same category, both cases imply that the font itself is the primary or one of the primary selling points of the products. As the users of these products can create their own typesetting, you’ll need to license the font in order to financially profit from such business without breaking the law. The analog distribution might include products such as stamps, house numbers or label makers.
As for product creation, the most popular example would be websites or applications which allow your customers to customize, proof and purchase products such as mugs, magnets, business cards, etc. where the font is used in the design of the final physical product.
Digital platforms (such as Canva and PicsArt Photo Studio) allow their users to pick and choose from a set of fonts and generate their own designs and images, which are then used for both personal and commercial purposes. In order to offer this set of fonts to users who pay fees and subscription plans, such businesses need to purchase an app creation license from the fonts’ owners.
App Creation license example: Canva
Another example from the digital world is that you might be the owner of a website publishing platform (such as Wix or Squarespace) which offers customers website templates with typography options which are then implemented in their personal websites hosted on your server. The fonts you embed in the templates need proper licensing and the customers must not have access to the fonts’ files in any way.
Website Templates license example: Wix
Imagine you develop and manufacture a device such as a television panel, phone, computer, etc. and you need to embed a font as the resident font in the device. In order to do that, you need to be issued a license for this particular font.
Unlimited licenses work best for large organizations, who need to use a font on as many computers as they wish and for any offline purposes they might need. Such license covers all environments – from apps to advertising campaigns – perpetually. Unlimited licenses are negotiated with the font owners (the type foundries in most cases) and are valued based on the scope of the company and additional research.
Most often exclusive font licenses are issued when a company or a design agency approaches a type foundry for a bespoke custom typeface. Under this license, the client would be the only organization able to use the font and the type foundry cannot offer this digital product to other clients. The pricing here is flexible and depends on the scope of the project.
Explore our custom projects in a previous article dedicated to custom corporate typefaces or drop us a line directly at firstname.lastname@example.org for a consultation.
When a company approaches a type foundry for bespoke typeface design, the latter issues a corporate font license, which can cover all pre-discussed uses of the typeface. It is common that the license includes transferable rights, so all additional outsourced teams (marketing agencies, design agencies, etc.) in the company are allowed to use the typeface to execute projects properly.
Font licensing costs
For the past 12 years of professional type work on an international level, Fontfabric has been exploring the trends and needs of the customers during the ups and downs of the industry’s market. We have established strong partnerships with respected worldwide vendors and committed to deliver quality typefaces in flexible bundles and under a variety of licensing options.
As an example, we assembled an indicative pricing for one of our most popular and newly-upgraded typefaces to date – Nexa, starting at $25 for a single style and $195 for an entire font family of 36 fonts.
*The selected number of users for the desktop licenses are for showcase purposes only. When purchasing from the vendors we work with, you’ll be able to put any number of users of your choice.
- If a single style is your chosen option, the desktop license varies from $25 for one user and up to $225 for 50 users.
- The web font license’s price starts from $25 for 10,000 pageviews monthly and goes up to $750 for 10 million pageviews per month.
- An ebook license would cost you $25 dollars for 1 ebook and will go up to $75 for 3 ebooks. If you’re in need of an application license, you would pay $75 for up to 25,000 users and will go as high as $625 for up to 5 million users.
- The desktop license for the entire font family ranges from $195 for 1 user and goes up to $1,755 for 50 users.
- A web font license is estimated at $195 for 10,000 pageviews per month and will reach the price of $5,850 for 10 million pageviews per month.
- The cost of an ebook license starts at $195 for 1 ebook and goes up to $585 for 3 ebooks.
- The application license option is valued at $585 for up to 25,000 users and reaches $4,875 for up to 5 million users.
If you’re researching for more specific options feel free to send us a message at email@example.com, so we can discuss and tailor licenses to your needs.
Fontfabric’s licensing policy
All creators of digital fonts have the freedom to set up their own licensing system however they choose. There is no standard among type foundries what type of licenses are offered and what requirements they should include or exclude. In our experience, most type foundries rely on a somewhat unified system for licensing, as this allows for more affordable digital fonts and overall market growth.
Fontfabric’s font licensing system is a combination of carefully managed agreements that cover both the most common cases, as well as unusual and custom needs of individual creatives, companies and enterprises internationally.
When it comes to downloading a free font from our website, every single one comes with a simple licensing, which covers most commercial use cases, but does not allow you to redistribute, resell or rework font files. When purchasing through the vendors we work with, you’ll be presented with the most popular options of font licensing.
Type designers answer frequently asked questions
What are the common restrictions in font licensing?
Apart from specific restrictions that come with each type of licensing, when it comes to the font files you are not allowed to modify, adapt, translate, reverse engineer, decompile or disassemble without the font’s owner prior written consent. You also may not resell or redistribute them without authorisation from the fonts’ owner. You may, however, create any type of designs, modify the vector outlines, create derivative works and visuals using the font itself.
Are fonts intellectual property?
Yes. Like art, music, or literary works, fonts are designed by real people and are protected by certain intellectual property rights. Beyond the design itself, fonts are software products, engineered with features and flexibility that enable good design and usability.
Does copyright law protect typefaces and fonts?
Generally, copyright law in the U.S. does not protect typefaces. It protects only the font software, not the artistic design of the typeface. In contrast, Germany recognized in 1981 that typeface designs can be protected by copyright as original works. England also allows typeface designs to be protected by copyright (since 1989).
Can you copy typefaces without worrying about copyright law?
Some argue that you can copy a font (by recreating it yourself) and as long as you don’t copy the computer program, you do not violate the law (in the U.S.).
How might you do this? In most cases it’s called font rendering. Among other ways, you can lawfully print every glyph on a printer, scan the image and then trace each image on your computer, as none of this would involve copying the software or program representing the fonts.
Does trademark law protect typefaces?
Trademark law protects only the name of a typeface, but not the design of the typeface.
Do companies protect their logo designs?
Many companies protect their logo designs from infringement. Some executions of type design (e.g., Coca-Cola’s) are copyrighted as a logo design.
Typefaces may be protected by a design patent (the strongest system of protection, but also uncommon) in many countries (either automatically, by registration, or by some combination thereof). In the US it secures the actual design of the fonts, whereas in the European Union the automatic protection expires after three years and can be extended (by registration) up to 25 years. Trademarks on the other hand only protect a typeface’s name (e.g., Nexa), not its actual design.
Why is font licensing an ethical issue?
Font licensing is a contentious issue, made more confusing by intellectual property laws on typefaces. Basically, in the USA, font files are protected by copyright, but font renderings are not. In other words, it’s illegal to redistribute fonts, but it’s legal to “reverse-engineer” them by printing them out on graph paper and designing the curves to match the printout.
However, reverse engineered fonts are typically cheap and freely available, but of poor quality. Perhaps one of the most offensive things about the nature of font piracy is that it artificially devalues the work of type designers, as there is no due credit given.
Has anyone ever actually gotten in trouble with font licensing?
Most certainly. Companies have been: threatened with legal action, forced to pay what they already should have, and/or sued for using fonts in unlicensed ways.
Here’s a list of substantial lawsuits for illegal font use from the last 11 years:
- A Different “Type” of Lawsuit (Berthold vs Target over Akzidenz-Grotesk, 2017, $150,000 per infringement)
- Font Maker Sues Universal Music over Vamps logo (Hype for Type vs Universal Music Group over Vamps logo usage, 2017, $1.25M plus destruction of infringing materials)
- Berthold says Volvo violated its copyright regarding typeface (2017, $30,000/day)
- My Little Pony toy maker sued over alleged font misuse – BBC News (Font Bros vs Hasbro over Generation B, Jan 2016, $150,000 per infringement)
- Microsoft Sued for $1.5 Million Over Hebrew Type Font (2013)
- Harry Potter and the Dangers of Font Non-Compliance / NBC Universal Accused of Million-Dollar ‘Harry Potter’ Font Theft (2011)—this was settled out of court, details unknown.
- Font Bureau clashes with NBC over font licensing (2009, $2M)
Are “free” fonts really free? Can I use them without worrying about the law?
People mistakenly believe that just because they downloaded a font for free, it is free to use. However, the web brims with pirated fonts, unlawfully distributed, or free for personal use only (and in most cases these lack quality and usability). Unless you download the font from a reputable website that states it is free for commercial use, it’s probably not free.
Although many free fonts allow unrestricted use (including use for commercial projects and as logotype fonts), “free” fonts can sometimes be commercial fonts that are illegally copied. To avoid this scenario, make sure you download your fonts from trusted sources and that you’ve read the terms and conditions thoroughly.
Do I need separate licenses for different uses?
Typically, yes. Each specific use corresponds to a different font license and in many cases you would need at least a desktop and a web font license to execute your personal and professional projects in full. Most commonly, corporate licenses offer rights to unconditional usage, thus making it a sole license that covers a variety of different uses.
Can I use a font with a desktop license on my website?
No, you need a proper web font license. When buying a web font license you get font files that are optimized for a web environment and can’t be used for desktop applications.
Can I use any font for my business logo?
Yes, provided you have a proper license for that font and in fact most desktop licenses out there allow it. Still, there might be some exceptions, so make sure you read the EULA carefully. Also, remember that it’s a good idea to tweak the font in small ways so that it stands out from a simple logotype. Otherwise, your logo may look like thousands of other logos.
Can I embed a font in an editable document (Powerpoint, .pdf, etc.)?
Most commonly, you are not allowed to embed commercial fonts in editable documents. By doing so you provide any third parties with the font, thus violating rights stated in the EULA and potentially exceeding the number of users allowed to use the font. In this case, you should purchase an upgraded license.
However, the EULA for our free fonts permits you to embed them in any document you send to third parties. Such documents may be viewed, printed and edited by the recipients.
Should I give a font to my clients?
Taking into account that your clients will be the ones using the font for their brands long-term, purchasing licensed fonts for them is considered best practice. However, some designers choose to give their clients the final artwork (like a print-ready .pdf) but not the font itself.
Can I license a font to clients?
Typically, you cannot. Your right to sub-license a font is governed by the EULA. However, when purchasing a font you can always put down your client’s name as a licensee.
Most logo designers avoid problems related to font licensing by converting their logotype to outlines and sending the client a vectorized outline (but not the font itself). If you supply vectorized logos to clients, they won’t need to purchase the font. If they want to continue using the same font for other projects though, they need to own a proper license to it.
What fonts are used in contracts?
There are cases of companies that use custom fonts in their documents to avoid infringement, but typically any font can be used in a document, as long as it is readable in smaller sizes.
Didn’t find an answer to your question? Leave us a comment down below and we’ll make sure to help you out.