Font Licensing Explained
Purchasing a license to use a font is important for a number of legal and ethical reasons. The license allows you to use someone else’s copyrighted material in a very specific way that is outlined in their licensing agreement, often referred to as the End User Licensing Agreement (EULA) in the type industry.
Licensing violations most often occur by accident because the purchaser doesn’t read or fully understand the licence. I get it, a dense legal document feels like a roadblock to moving on and using that perfect font in your project. The good news is that the industry seems to be moving toward friendlier language and even though each agreement is different, there are many standardized things that you can look out for in a licence. If you know what you are looking for, deciphering the license will become easier.
I have put together this guide that outlines the kind of things to look out for in a license and some of the terminology often used.
If you have a question about a particular license, inquire directly to the foundry with an email or phone call! Most foundries will be happy to point you to the licensing you need, or create a custom licence if their available licences don’t cover your needs.
*Disclaimer, I am not a lawyer and am not qualified to give legal advice. This article is intended to give an overview of possible licensing terms you may encounter, each licence agreement is different — make sure to read each thoroughly and consult your own legal council if you have questions.
Desktop licences are the most popular option and are usually treated as the base licensing type with other EULAs viewed as add-ons or upgrades. You will be given a download of the typeface to install on your computer and use in any program that you wish.
They are usually sold in “users” or amount of people who will have access to use the font on a computer. Usually, you get a bulk discount for each user you add onto the licence, so if the cost for 1 user is $20, you might get 2 users for $35, etc.
Amount Of Devices
Some EULAs limit the amount of devices that the fonts can be installed on (example 2 devices) and will allow you to make a limited number of backup copies as well (usually 1). Others will allow it to be installed on unlimited devices as long as the amount of people who have access doesn’t exceed the amount of users paid for. That’s great news for those of us with 12 computers all to ourselves ;)
Some EULAs require a different licence purchase for different locations of your business. In this case, you would buy one licence with the appropriate amount of users for one location and another licence with the appropriate amount of users for each of your other locations. Other EULAs will cover all licensees in your entire company with one licence agreement.
Most do not allow you to share licences between companies. If you are a contractor or freelancer, you generally need your own licence separate from your client. Of course, if your client will not be installing the typeface on their computer, then they do not need a licence for it, ie. you (the designer) will be creating the production of all their design materials and they will not need to edit anything themselves using the fonts. Some licenses are now allowing contractors to temporarily count toward your user limit as long as they destroy copies of the font when they leave the project.
Limited Print Runs (Impressions)
This is far less common now, but some EULAs restrict the amount of impressions you can make with the fonts, for example, you may only be able to print 500,000 pamphlets using that typeface licence. Licence upgrades are nearly always available if you need to make more impressions.
Most of the time you can make as many static images and print runs as you wish using the font.
Third Party Restrictions
Check these restrictions carefully, generally they are implemented to protect the font files from unauthorized use and pirating. Some do not allow you to give the font files to anyone at all, but increasingly most licences will allow you to send it to a printer for output of your designs as long as they agree to destroy all copies of the font file upon project completion.
EULAs often restrict embedding of the font files, again because of pirating and unauthorized use worries. Keep in mind that when you make a PDF it may be embedding the font files into it. For the designers out there, when you package an inDesign file, the fonts go with it unless you specify for them not to.
- Some EULAs prohibit embedding entirely (but offer a licence upgrade)
- Some EULAs allow it in PDFs if the PDF will not be directly editable by the receiving party (I believe this is true for most PDFs unless you have created fields for users to fill in using the font in question).
- For ePubs and eBooks a licence upgrade is almost always necessary (see below)
Some EULAs have special restrictions around making a logo from the typeface. You may be able to make a logo from the font by changing it into outlines (sometimes called a “graphical object”). Some EULAs have a restriction that you cannot use a single character from the font as a logo, especially if it’s a symbol or dingbat. Others still will not allow any logos created from the typeface. And some will allow you to make a logo but not make any modifications to the letterforms (example, making the stem of the p extend farther down than it does). Sometimes licence upgrades are available to be able to make logos with the font.
Alphabet Products For Sale
Many EULAs do not allow you to create “alphabet goods” for resale. This is generally understood as any use where the letterforms or font characters are the prime selling feature of the product. Examples include house numbers, stamp sets, magnets, or stickers of individual letters, or single characters printed on an object or poster. This includes all characters in the font — letters, numbers, and symbols. Sometimes, a custom licence can be worked out for these cases.
Most of the time it will be stated that if any harm comes to you or your company (financial or otherwise) due to the use of the typeface, the designer and/or foundry is not responsible for anything more than a refund. Some licences explicitly say you can’t use their fonts in high-risk industries such as aviation and government.
If you would like to use the font in a media other than print or static images it’s likely you will need a licence upgrade. These might include use for broadcast, videos, film, web, gaming, or electronic devices (OEM embedding) like a microwave display or a clock face.
Derivatives & Distribution
Unless the font is open source, you cannot make derivatives or redistribute the font in any way. This usually includes restrictions on changing the font files into other formats, for example, using font squirrel to create the WOFFs for your website.
Due to trade restrictions in the country where the foundry resides, there are a few foundries that cannot sell licences to certain other countries. These will be listed in the EULA if this is the case.
Web Font Licences
There’s a bit of confusion about when you need to upgrade to a web font licence, if you are creating a static image using the fonts (like a png or jpg) and uploading it to the web (like social media or ads), you do not need a web font licence. If you want to embed the font as live text in your website, (or ad — see digital ads below!) you will most likely need to upgrade to the web font licence.
Limits By Pageviews Or Domains
Web font EULAs can be sold in pageviews/month with unlimited domains. This means you can have it installed on multiple domains as long as the collective pageviews/month doesn’t exceed your limit. The domains must all be owned by the same person or company.
The price per pageviews varies pretty dramatically between foundries at the time of this writing but there are usually different tiers so you can upgrade to a higher limit whenever you need. Most will also have a grace period of about 3 months for overages, so if you have a random super popular month you don’t need to upgrade immediately.
Alternatively, some EULAs may come with unlimited pageviews but require a separate licence for each domain the font is being installed on.
WOFF2 and WOFF file formats are generally supplied with the web font licence and some include SVG and EOT as well (See here for more on the different types of formats). Some do not allow you to serve certain formats like OTF or TTF, check with your developer to make sure they aren’t using these formats if your licence restricts it.
Font File Protection
EULAs will specify that you cannot make the font files publicly available where unauthorized users could download and use them. Developers, please don’t put the fonts up on your github page!
I have not seen any limitations to making a web app with the web fonts in any EULA so far in my search, but this would be something I’d still look out for. When you are making a web app where your users can type something they are technically using the font files, but only within the app. They are not installing them on any of their devices so an app licence is not needed. They are also not creating a product so this use doesn’t quite fit into server licensing either (see below). Again, if you are creating this and are unsure, get in touch with the foundry or designer.
Not Usually Covered
Websites where the users have access to use the fonts in order to create a product (physical or digital) usually falls under a server licence (see below). If you are creating a website template and wish to bundle the fonts with it you will generally need a custom licence.
There is usually a licence upgrade available if you would like to embed the font in your ebook, ePub, or digital magazine. There is generally a limit on how many titles you can embed in (usually 1 per licence) but you can distribute it to unlimited platforms (like itunes, nook, and kindle). If you are publishing an eMagazine, some EULAs count each issue as another title and require a licence for each, watch out for that.
There is sometimes an upgrade for use in digital ads where the font will be embedded (some HTML5 technology allows this, see more here). This will be generally sold in impressions across multiple domains. This is NOT needed if you are creating a static image like a jpg or png for your ad.
Mobile App Licences
If you are creating a mobile app for installation on smartphones you’ll need this licence. Sometimes, you will be allowed to install the font on your computer for development purposes without needing the desktop licence as well.
There are two approaches to limitations. Some limit the number of titles per licence (usually 1) and allow unlimited installations across multiple platforms. Other EULAs allow multiple titles but restrict the amount of monthly users across all platforms.
This term is pretty confusing, FontSpring even suggests changing it to something more like “Product Creation Licence”. If you want to install the font files on a server so all your employees have access, that is covered by the desktop licence and number of users you have purchased, you do NOT need this licence.
If you have a website where many users can access the font files in order to create something (physical or digital) then this licence is required. Examples include a website where customers can customize (using the font) mugs, shirts, keychains, etc. and then order the product. It also applies to apps where people can overlay text onto an image and then share that image (digital product).
A few foundries have this licence option publicly displayed, but most will make a custom licence for you when you get in touch about it.
If you have a use not covered by the foundry’s publicly available licence types never hesitate to get in touch, their goal is to make sure you are covered properly for your intended use.
Perpetual vs Subscription
Some licences are perpetual, which means you can use the font files for that use indefinitely. Others are subscription and will require monthly or yearly payments to continue using the font for that use.
Desktop licences are generally perpetual and straightforward but other licensing types can cause a bit of confusion when figuring out if they are perpetual or subscription.
For example, web licences can be either. The best way to think about it is that you are purchasing an agreement and your agreement includes a pageviews/month limit. You may only have to pay for that agreement once, or you may have to pay for it monthly or yearly. Mobile app licences work similarly.
It can be expected that Server Licences and other custom licence types are almost always subscription on a yearly basis, but in some cases may be offered as perpetual.
Thanks for making it through all that, I hope your brain hasn’t melted. I gathered this information from a number of licence agreements that I read through but there may be more terms out there that I haven’t encountered. If you find something you think should be added to this list, make sure you let me know!