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September 8, 2016

Are you lost in the jungle of Font Licensing?

I am a cofounder at Creative Fabrica, an all-you-can-eat font subscription service for designers. Previously I cofounded a design & development studio and have ample experience with copyright of digital assets. My focus is on simplifying copyright and digital assets management.

When it comes to design, depending on your area of expertise, most of your clients come to you because they want you to help them convey a message.

They are looking for that skilled individual that can help them create something visual that leaves an impact. With only a few exceptions, almost all of these projects do not only include visuals, they also include something equally important: Type.

Choosing the right type for your project is hard. Books have been written about how to choose the right typeface. These books focus on the aesthetics of choosing a font. They are about creating a coherent design and how important type is to get your message across.

When it comes to choosing the right type, one crucial element is usually forgotten, how to pick the right license. This blog will help you in the right direction.

What is a font license and what is its purpose

Simply put, a font license is a legal document that tells you what you can and cannot do with a specific font. See it as a contract between you and the creator of the font.

If you ever purchased fonts you know it’s a jungle out there. First of all, if you already can find the font license, the setup of each font license can be very different.

Main types of licenses that you will run across:

  • Long, complex legal documents
  • Short licenses that tell you what you can do with a font
  • Short licenses that tell you what you cannot do with a font
  • Vague licenses that don’t make any sense at all, even after reading it 5 times

How to read these font licenses

It’s very important to understand that a font license is a legal document that is telling you how you can use the file that you are purchasing."

It’s very important you go over it and make sure that the license suits your and your customer’s needs.

If a document states what you can do with a font, make sure you understand what you cannot do. It’s best to not make any assumptions. The other way around is just as important. Just because a document states what you cannot do, it doesn’t automatically allow you to do everything that isn’t stated.

Here's an example

A virtual company “Empire Estate”, an online real-estate website comes to you and asks you to design a logo. They also tell you they want their brand name written in a playful type and send you a link to the font they would like to use. They ask you to purchase the font and bill them for it.

Now this scenario is pretty common but poses a couple of potential problems that are easily solved, but usually overlooked. All depending on the site where you are purchasing your fonts from and the license(s) that they include there are some things to look out for:

  1. First thing you should find out is that if you are purchasing the license, are you even able to transfer the rights to your customer?
  2. When you will finish the design you will most likely send the logo as a PNG, SVG, etc and include the PSD/AI file and the font file. You need to make sure this doesn’t require a secondary license.
  3. Where can your work be displayed? Most likely your customer will tell you they will just use it on their website. But what about the business cards they print? Or the ad in the local newspaper? And what about youtube pre-rolls? Or TV Ads. What if they create a mobile app or publish a promotional eBook? The list goes on and on.

Did you for example know that the simple license from Creative Market allows you to only use your work in YouTube videos that have up to 10,000 monthly views? – If they want more views they have to work out a separate agreement with the shop owner. While in a lot of cases this will work out, don’t be surprised if the type designer asks you to purchase a $200 license or worse, you don’t get any answer.

Using Free Fonts

Now I can totally understand that you don’t want to deal with any of the hassle of going through licenses and legal mumbo jumbo so you just decide to go for free fonts.

Because free fonts are way simpler to handle right? Unfortunately this is not always the case. Free is still a license and still can come with conditions. The tricky thing about free fonts is that they are copied over and over again. Every time a font gets uploaded to a new site the license might change.

So while it says on the site where you download that the font is free for commercial use, it might be that when it was originally released by the designer it was released as free for personal use.

I would always advise that when using free fonts for commercial use you should track down the original designer and get explicit approval via email or find the license on their website.

How to be safe and track your licenses

So how do you prevent problems with licenses and how do you keep track of them?

First of all, when buying an item:

  1. Read the license – it’s easy to blame the complexity of licenses but the unfortunate truth is that most designers don’t even bother to read licenses. Also, don’t count on your customers to read the licenses.
  2. When there is any doubt, contact the site you are ordering from and ask them specifically about your use case or contact the designer directly.
Don't count on your customers to read the licenses."

Once you are sure that you can use the font and you have purchased it:

  1. Always store each and every license for each and every font, you can simply create a folder where you store documents under the fonts name so you can always easily match them. Include the receipt of purchase and make sure that the date is on it.
  2. A lot of sites don’t provide a PDF but just a online page with the license. While this is not a problem, make sure to always save that page as a PDF. Licenses might change over time. Also, a marketplace might disappear over time.
  3. Any communication you have with a website or author about the usage of a font should also be stored along with the license document.
  4. Make clear agreements with your client. Have it in writing that it’s your clients’ responsibility to acquire the proper licenses for usage of the font, now and in the future. This basically applies to any digital asset.

The good news is that both font designers and marketplaces see that there is an opportunity for improvement. This is one of the reasons we started Creative Fabrica. To make designers lives easier by offering high quality digital assets for a fair price with clear consistent licensing. Make sure to check us out. For a few bucks you will get access to over 1200 fonts with a single commercial license.

Let me know if you have any specific questions regarding your chosen fonts in the comments. I'd be happy to help. 🖖🏼

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