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Font Licensing Explained, Understand This Before It’s Too Late

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So, you’ve been creating a cool design, maybe for a product that you want to sell, maybe for a digital poster, or even, perhaps, for a social media post on your way to becoming the next great influencer.

Have you ever considered the fonts you are using?

Yes, that beautiful text goes so well with your design, with the cool, aesthetic font that you have carefully selected. Do you really have the right to use it?

Sometimes we take font for granted because it’s already there on the software that we use to make the design. Sometimes, we even get it for free on the internet. But, really, we need to understand a thing or two about font licensing.

The Basics of Font Licensing

Google, on their fonts knowledge page, stated that:

In typography, licensing refers to the terms of use and redistribution that are decided by a type foundry, as well as the process of obtaining a license by a user.

The actual license comes in the form of a document. Within that document, it is clearly stated what the users can and cannot do with the files.

You may think, the font you are using is actually free font, so it does not need a license, right? Well, it’s better to have a license for all your fonts, free or otherwise.

Every font has an associated license and it is good practice to have a copy of the license for each font you have.

As Google put it:

When you use a font, that implies you’ve agreed to those license terms.

Type of License

Licensing fonts is a way to avoid copyright infringement. It is important to know the different types of licenses available and the rights that go with each one before you purchase fonts.

The most common type of license is the “Single-Use License,” which allows you to use a font on a single project, or on multiple projects if they are part of an identical project, but not on any other projects.

A “Multi-Use License” allows you to use a font on any number of projects, as long as they are not part of an identical project.

An “Extended License” allows you to use a font for commercial purposes and includes all the rights granted by the Single-Use and Multi-Use Licenses.

But, that is not all. Before we dive even deeper into the various type of licenses, we better take a step back.

Things to Consider When Licensing Fonts

Of course, licensing fonts is really important when you start doing commercial work. Regardless the commercial work is for yourself, your own company, a company you work for, or even a client on a project.

It is generally simpler to think of each project as a separate commercial project with a client, even if that client is yourself. This will be useful when thinking about the license you want to use the font with, as many licenses have clarified that you may use their product on a project for a client.

The other thing to consider is the distinction between Font and Typeface. Put it simply, a font is a set of specifically designed letters, while a typeface consists of several fonts.

Even if in daily conversation a font and a typeface can be interchangeable when it comes to licensing you to need to know the difference. A typeface is a family of fonts with similar designs and characteristics, while each font in that family may have a different weight, size, or even style.

For example, Google Fonts have a typeface called Alumni Sans, within that typeface, there are Alumni Sans, Alumni Sans Collegiate One, Alumni Sans Inline One, and Alumni Sans Pinstripe.

Some foundry creates a license for the whole typeface and provides a license for each specific font in that typeface. So, when you only license the font, you don’t automatically gain a license to the typeface. But, when you license the typeface, that includes all the fonts in that family.

The final thing to consider when licensing a font is the size and scope of the project you will be using that font in. This will come into effect when you start to calculate the price of licensing it.

The cost to license a font for usage in a t-shirt design for 1000 print runs can be different than when used for a website with millions of pageviews per day. So, pay attention to that.

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More Types of Licenses

The most common license type is called an End-User License or Desktop License. This license is rather old-fashioned in that it enables you to install a font on a computer and then use it for many projects (usually offline).

This is the license that people use if they want to create a logo based on a font. This could also be used for printing, signage, merchandise, etc.

Since this is a desktop license, you should be certain of the number of computers it can be installed on. This license can sometimes include a commercial license, but sometimes not.

This brings us to the next type of license known as a commercial license. This license could be part of a desktop license, but it could also be separate.

A commercial license, put simply, is a license for commercial use. For example, if you are pitching a project to a client, you don’t necessarily have to use the commercial font. But when the pitch is approved and you need to go live with the design, you need to make sure that it has a commercial license.

A license is also necessary for your client if they intend to adjust some text from your design. This must be purchased separately and licensed to the client, not to you.

The next common type of license is a web font license. This is given to a font that will be used as part of a web design, specifically when the font is used for the text on a web page, not necessarily for a graphical (image) component on that website.

A web license gives permission to store and “distribute” (albeit limited distribution) the font through your server. This could be restricted in the number of page views, meaning the different prices for different page views. Or, some fonts can be restricted for the domain name, meaning different licenses for .com and .org, for example.

Adobe and Google Font License

Another common license is the Adobe font license as formerly known as TypeKit. You need to read the fine print on your Adobe Creative Suite to see the details, but this basically gives you the ease of use when using a font that comes with the suite.

Also, there are Google Fonts, that use a common open source licensing called SIL Open Font License. There is fairly complete documentation on this here, but in summary: SIL OFL grants rights to use freely as long as you are not selling the font itself. If you modify a SIL OFL font, you must license it under SIL OFL, but any documents or designs created using SIL OFL fonts can be licensed any other way.

Please note that open source and free licenses can be different. A free font you get from font aggregation or download service can have a very specific use case, such as personal use only, which means you cannot use that font for a commercial project.

Special Font License

There is also some special kind of license that you may need for certain projects. For example, a Server Font License is a license to put a font on a server to be used on online services. This could apply if you are creating a web service or application for designing t-shirts, for example, and you need to give your user font options.

There is also special licensing for the digital reader, e-book, or ePub format. This license needs to be examined carefully, as you may need a separate license for a new edition or after reaching a certain number of sales.

The unlimited license can also be obtained from a foundry, but this is especially if you have a very big organization and just want to do away with any headache in upgrading a license after reaching a certain number of items or views.

There is also an exclusive license, this is when you gain the exclusive rights to a font from a foundry. This will make the font unavailable to another party. This could also be a custom font created by the foundry for your project.

Conclusion and Resources

Yes, licensing can be a headache and confusing, but you need to understand it from the start, to avoid bigger problems down the line. Remember that each font is a creative work, just as you want to be appreciated and respected for the design you make, you should always appreciate and respect other creative work such as copywriting, sounds, music, and yes, fonts and typefaces.

Understand Creatype Studio font licensing here.

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