Typefaces are like clothes. Clothing for your text. They set the appearance of words and influence their effect on the reader.
But shopping for typefaces is very different from shopping for actual clothes, which you get to own and wear.
To use a typeface, you need to download and/or purchase the font—which is in the form of a file or set of files. But the ownership of these files is not exactly yours.
When you purchase a font, what you are purchasing is the license to use it. Font files, technically, are software. When you buy a font, you get the file, but what you pay for is the right to use it.
How about free fonts?
But just because these fonts are labeled as free, it doesn’t mean you can use them for anything you please.
How free is free?
That is where designers need to go into lawyer mode and actually read the licenses.
Font licensing can get complicated, but as far as free fonts go, they are usually, by default, free for personal use. You just need to find out whether they are ok for commercial use as well.
Their license is simple (usually a txt file that comes with your download) and would normally tell you if it’s free for personal or commercial use or both.
Free for Personal Use – for projects that have no commercial value
Free for Commercial Use – for projects that earn
In both cases you are allowed to use the font files, but not to modify them in any way.
Some font designers will share a limited version or a demo version of their typeface available for free on dafont, as part of a marketing strategy for publicity. The full or Pro version will be available for purchase in MyFonts or Creative Market.
The League of Movable Type
As for The League of Moveable Type, “All our fonts are free to use however and wherever you need, to build on and learn from. We survive on donations, membership, and education.” Thank you, League!
Google Fonts are created for web-based use. Their FAQ states that “All fonts are released under open source licenses. You can use them in any non-commercial or commercial project.”
“Can they be used on any web page,” you ask? Google Fonts says:
“Yes. The open source fonts in the Google Fonts catalog are published under licenses that allow you to use them on any website, whether it’s commercial or personal.
Search queries may surface results from external foundries, who may or may not use open source licenses.”
Open-source, by definition, is free for all and can presumably used on print projects too. Although I have not tested them out for that purpose before, I have not yet seen any restrictions on using them for print.
That being said, Google fonts still require discernment – they are not made by Google, but by typeface designers contributing to Google.
As with most free fonts, some of them were made very quickly, and may not be perfect in terms of spacing and design consistency.
In Practical Typography, Matthew Butterick cautions against using Google Fonts:
“measured by professional standards, the average Google Font is just awful. Some are better than others, but nearly all fall prey to at least one fatal flaw of being ugly, incomplete, poorly drawn, poorly spaced, amateurish, or just unusable.”
So those are just the free fonts. Now let’s get to the paid ones.
Paid Fonts & Their Various Licensing Laws
Before you pay for a font, you’ll want to know what you can use it for. Especially if you are using it for a big brand that will gain a lot of publicity.
You don’t want to find yourself in a situation such as that of Joy Mangano, who is allegedly using Moshik Nadav’s Paris typeface without paying for the corresponding license, resulting in an angry type designer and some very bad publicity.
There are generally two kinds of font licenses for paid typefaces: the simple, and the complicated
Simple – Those by individual type designers selling on creative marketplaces
Complicated – Licenses by font foundries and larger font companies
By complicated, I mean very detailed, and something you need to go into lawyer mode to understand, or ask a lawyer to help you read through and interpret.
The Simple Licenses
Adobe Fonts on Creative Cloud
(formerly known as Typekit)
The assumption is that we can use any typeface on Creative Cloud for any purpose we want. That is correct in the general sense, but it is only usable by you. You can’t share the font with a developer or client. No credit is required for Adobe. You can use it for books and ebooks.
For example, with packaging files in InDesign (a function of InDesign that puts all your publication layout files such as images and fonts into a single folder for production use), Adobe Fonts does not allow the font files to be sent to a printer. To use the files with live fonts, they will need to use their own license. The workaround is for you to outline the fonts before packaging the file, or send them as a PDF. According to Adobe, fonts that are embedded in a PDF, or rasterized fonts, are ok to keep and distribute in that form.
But what happens if you cancel your Creative Cloud subscription? As for working files, you will of course need a license to keep using them (otherwise you won’t even be able to see them). As long as you are paying the hefty monthly fee for the Creative Cloud suite, you are a licensed Adobe Fonts user.
You can read more on that here: https://helpx.adobe.com/fonts/using/font-licensing.html
Mac System Fonts
The fonts that come with your computer, according to Apple, may be used for commercial purposes.
‘The fonts made available in Font Book may be used to create, display and print content on OS X running on a Mac. Such content may be used for either personal or commercial purposes. Users are, however, prohibited from copying and distributing the electronic font files made available in Font Book for use on non-Apple hardware.’
Creative Resource Webshops
For sites such as Creative Market and Design Cuts, fonts are purchased by freelancers and small companies, and big companies with small budgets.
Creative Market fonts are made by individual type designers. Their license states that “Items purchased under the Standard License may be used to create End Products for Sale where lifetime sales of the End Product for Sale do not exceed 500 units. Items purchased under the Extended License may be used to create End Products for Sale that may be sold an unlimited number of times.”
This allows designers to receive fair compensation when their typeface participates in making a product attractive and thus profitable.
Creative market distinguishes between Personal use and Commercial Work:
Personal Use is defined as using purchased Items in a manner that has no potential monetary gain. Personal Use projects cannot be related to any business, non-profit, or other organization of any kind. All purchased Items may be used in an unlimited number of Personal Use Projects. Examples of Personal Use include using a graphic to create t-shirts for a family reunion, using a template to create a birthday card that you send in celebration of a friend’s special day, using a photo in a piece of wall art that you create for family member as a gift (no money changes hands), etc.
We define Commercial Work to be any work done that is not for Personal Use. Synonymous terms include Contracted Work and Client Work.
Design cuts is similar to Creative Market in principle.
For small projects or side projects these types of licenses won’t get you into trouble. I suggest keeping track of which fonts came from where. I recently decluttered my font folder, essentially started over so I know where things are and what fonts I have the right to use commercially.
The Complicated Licenses
Okay. Here’s where licenses start to get excruciatingly specific: when licensing fonts with type foundries.
A foundry was originally a type factory—a place where metal type was cast. Fonts were not pixels, but actual blocks of metal. Today, fonts are digitally created, but we still call the companies that make them font foundries (which I find really cool). We also continue to use old-school terminology such as “uppercase” and “lowercase,” which refer to actual cases in which the metal type was stored and organized, in the olden days.
Type foundries have very detailed licensing agreements. This is where you will start hearing the fancy term EULA (End User License Agreement). They usually cater to large clients and have legal departments. If you are a individual freelancer, it’s very overwhelming to be at this stage. Licenses are complicated because they’re not meant for small projects. These are used by big brands that make millions from one project. And the typefaces are created by the big guns, the pros.
Monotype is one of the biggest players in the industry (if not the biggest—they are behind MyFonts and Fontshop) and their font licensing guide indicates that you need to license for specific applications (Desktop, Mobile, Web, ePub, Products, Server).
Side note: Monotype also has a paid app called fontbook that has a gazillion typefaces to drool over. It allows you to view by Foundry, Designer, Year, Usage, or Class. It’s a great place to hunt for fonts, (or bedtime surfing for the typographically obsessed graphic designer) If you find something you like, you can visit the Foundry or Designer’s website and buy from there (there’s no direct buy button since it’s not a sales tool) or check if it’s available on Adobe Fonts or a free website.
Other big players are Hoefler & Co. Linotype, and Emigre. Here are links to their very detailed licensing agreements and guides:
HOEFLER AND CO https://www.typography.com/home/eula.php
FRERE JONES https://frerejones.com/licensing/desktop
As an example of just how detailed these are, here’s a snippet from Emigre’s licensing specs:
Basic License – For font users with up to five CPUs at one location.
Multi-CPU License – For font users with more than five CPUs, or more than one location.
Service Bureau License – For any font user that sends fonts off-site for output.
World-Wide License – For large companies with many locations.
Font Embedding License – Required, in addition to the desktop license, if fonts are embedded into apps, eBooks, websites, etc.
There are two types of embedding licenses:
1 Non-Editable Embedding
Non-Editable, or “Static” font embedding is for ebooks apps, games, etc. with static text and where the third party or end user is NOT allowed to enter or edit text with fonts.
Web Fonts License – For font use in web pages with the CSS @font-face rule.
Mobile App License – For embedding fonts in apps on approved platforms, such as Android, iPhone and iPad.
EBook License – For embedding fonts in apps on approved platforms, such as Android, iPhone and iPad.
Game License – For embedding fonts in standalone game or other applications, compiled in proprietary format, run on user’s device.
2 Editable Embedding
Editable or “Dynamic” font embedding is for applications and websites that feature templates for greeting cards, stationery, business cards, photo albums, games, etc. where the third party or end user IS allowed to enter or edit text with the font.
Editable embedding licenses, such as games, online greeting cards, and online applications, editable documents, dynamic Apps, and kiosks are quoted on an individual basis.
Apart from these highly specific EULAs, they also offer the possibility of a custom license.
Respecting the EULAs
Many of us may embrace a Robin Hood mentality when it comes to type. Meaning we’ll readily use expensive typefaces for small projects without licensing them. (Steal from the rich to give to the poor). Many designers demand that all fonts must be free or suggest that paid fonts are a form of greed. But this shouldn’t be the case.
In Typofonderie’s website there is a paragraph that highlights why we need to respect the typeface profession and the licensing agreements they put forth.
It is a full-time job which requires lots of time, patience, love and humility.
This work is neither a hobby nor a charity business, far away from it.
Copying and/or stealing licenses and the non-respect of this work constitute a sad reality that unfortunately contributes to the disappearance of quality craftsmanship to the profit of the “quick and dirty”! No need to have a strong imagination to guess what would happen if your clients, your company, your boss or yourself act in an illegal matter: by deciding not to pay for your work or just because an internal customer department (communication, marketing, editing,…) or external (design, communication, advertising agencies, etc.) have failed to acquire rights on the licenses! We estimate that more than half of the Typofonderie fonts in use are not licensed at all.
We do not solely live with love and fresh water. Our work needs to be paid to create more, design more innovative typefaces, still build quality and differentiation. As well, you need to differentiate yourself from your competitors and communicate with legibility, subtlety and harmony.
Totally agree. Being mindful of type licenses shows our respect for the type creators, who make design so easy for us. Because they put in the hours to make the typeface as usable and as perfect as possible.
Here are some questions I’m often asked, by people who mistake me for a type expert.
What if I am using a typeface for a brand logo?
You will definitely need the commercial license. Read through the license text (which is usually on the foundry or company’s website) to make sure that it’s allowed for logo use.
Is a license per computer or per person?
Unless specified otherwise, a font with a simple license is for one seat. One seat is for one computer. You’ll need an additional seat if you want to install it in another computer.
Type foundries have certain license for companies that allow for multiple seats, and even custom licenses to cater to the company’s or client’s requirements.
Can I modify a typeface in font software and use it?
This is common practice among designers, but most typeface licenses do not allow this, as it changes the font design and can compromise its integrity.
I suppose it can be done merely for learning purposes, in secret, then all evidence destroyed thereafter haha.
But in a piece of work, you can’t do that.
An example from Commercial Type’s License:
You agree not to create, assist in and/or cause the creation of modifications or additions to the Fonts or Font Software, including, but not limited to, creating additional weights; creating additional or deleting existing characters; modifying existing characters; modifying font spacing and kerning; or converting fonts to an alternate digital format, modify, adapt, translate, reverse engineer, decompile, disassemble, alter, or otherwise attempt to discover the source code of the Font Software without first obtaining written permission from Commercial Type.
Can I re-sell a typeface / typeface license?
Nope. Only the owner of the typeface has the right to sell it. Licenses are non-transferrable.