A font is actually an individual software program. When a font is purchased, the font itself is never owned outright by the purchaser – the purchase is only for a “license” to use the font software. Like any software program, there are specific terms and conditions called EULAs (end user license agreements) which stipulates “who” can use the software and exactly “how” it can be used. EULAs are usually chock full of technical and legal language.
Font licensing has always been confusing, but over the past 10 years or so, font licensing has dramatically changed and has become even more convoluted. The basic “desktop” license model that has been around since the 1990’s (before digital) often does not cover today’s needs.
New and ever-changing technology has added additional licensing models to the mix. There are different font licensing models for web pages, mobile apps, digital ads, ePubs, and web servers – there will undoubtedly be more in the future.
Lack of standardization adds to the confusion.
Every font foundry and font designer (there are hundreds) has their own unique set of terms and conditions for font usage. There is no standard or common EULA across the foundries. It would be erroneous to assume that all EULAs are the same. Licensees must be prepared to read, sign and abide by the EULA of each and every font they purchase.
“Generous” font licensing style.
Many prominent font foundries offer relatively generous font licensing with moderate restrictions. This licensing is often reasonably priced, perpetual (no time restrictions) and based on the number of users who will use the font at their premises. These fonts are usually permitted to be used on any brand.
“Restrictive” font licensing style.
Other foundries have font licensing that is significantly restrictive and as a result can be expensive and very difficult to monitor.
Their licensing is more of an à la carte “menu” with individual fees for usage such as print, branding, logos, titling or credits for broadcast on cable television or the internet, commercial exhibition, motion picture films, video, etc.
Another menu item is “large volume commercial uses” – even more fees to use the font to create products, promotional campaigns and advertising, product packaging, interior or exterior store signage and billboards.
Foundries with restrictive licensing will often constrain the use of their fonts down to a single brand. Some components of their licensing may also have time limits and geographic restrictions.
Foundries with a restrictive licensing style may attempt to hold all users of a font (brand, agencies, and suppliers) legally accountable should any user in the production chain inadvertently misuse their fonts against their EULA.
Exactly who should be licensed?
Another confusing factor. Who should be licensed is very much dependent on the licensing model required and the EULA of foundries themselves.
Some foundries only need the actual physical user of the fonts to be licensed while others demand that both brand and all users who work on behalf of the brand be licensed.
Beware of the “FREE” font!
Remember the old adage “If it’s too good to be true, it probably is”? This most definitely applies to “FREE” fonts.
The web contains a veritable plethora of free font sites.
With only a few exceptions, downloading free fonts from the web is not a good practice. If you’re a reputable brand or advertising agency, your team should stay clear of free fonts – you may very well get more than you bargained for. Purchase your font licensing from reputable font foundries and designers – you’ll be glad you did.
Problems associated with free fonts:
Quality. Another old adage “You get what you pay for”. Poor rendering quality, poor kerning, missing glyphs, created in English only (can’t produce multiple languages), created in single weights only (no italic, bold, bold italic, etc.).
Customer service and support. There isn’t any.
Licensing. Many of these sites don’t offer up a EULA for the fonts that reside there. Having a clear and concise EULA should be mandatory. If you’re fortunate enough to reach the font designer listed on the site (more often than not you won’t get a reply), “Sure Dude – go ahead and use my font” is not a EULA.
Personal use only. Many free fonts are offered for personal use only (not commercial use). Personal use is typically cases such as scrapbooking, school projects, etc.
Questionable Origins. Where did the fonts on these sites originally come from? Have they been collected and modified without permission from the original authors? What measures have free-font-site owners taken to verify the fonts they put on their sites are authorized to be there or be distributed? These are all things that brands and advertising agencies may have to answer for.
Confused about font licensing yet? It is confusing. And with confusion comes risk.