Fonts: Basic Guide to Font Licensing
Fonts are software for creating and displaying typefaces. As with any software, you need to license font software in order to use it. This document provides a simple guide to font licensing.
Unless it's handwriting, everything you read and write - in print or onscreen - is conveyed using a specific typeface. Whether you're reading a book, scrolling through a web page, looking at a poster, typing a letter, or texting a message, the characters you see are represented by particular type designs in the form of fonts.
There are hundreds of thousands of fonts and each design provides a different way to visually communicate the written word. Choosing one font over another can make or break your message, but just as important as selecting the right font is making sure you have the right licence to use it.
Photo by smileham on Flickr - used under a Creative Commons licence
What's the difference between fonts and typefaces?
A typeface is a collection of characters with its own distinct design - letters, numbers, symbols and punctuation marks. A font is what is used to physically create the typeface. In the past, fonts were the metal or wooden print blocks that formed each character; today fonts are classified as software.
I didn't realise fonts were software
Indeed they are. Like all software, font software is protected by copyright - using a font without having the right licence to do so is a form of software piracy.
"Software piracy is the unauthorised copying or distribution of copyrighted software. This can be done by copying, downloading, sharing, selling, or installing multiple copies onto personal or work computers. What a lot of people don't realise or don't think about is that when you purchase software, you are actually purchasing a licence to use it, not the actual software. That licence is what tells you how many times you can install the software, so it's important to read it. If you make more copies of the software than the licence permits, you are pirating."
Business Software Alliance
In other words, if you buy a font you are in fact buying a licence to use the font software on a particular number of computers for specified purposes.
Font software licences vary depending on where you buy them from. Font software publishers, font retailers, font foundries, type designers and individual fonts will all have their own End User Licence Agreement (EULA) which you should always read carefully.
You can read some of the different EULAs for the various foundries that font retailer FontShop supplies.
I haven't got time to read the EULA - can you summarise the principles of font licensing?
Yes and no - as you will see if you follow the above FontShop link, each foundry has its own terms. You certainly should take the time to read the EULA relating to the font software you are buying a licence for.
It may be tempting to skip this step, in the same way that some people tick the 'I agree to these terms and conditions' checkbox without fully reading the terms when installing software, but you really do need to be aware of what you are agreeing to.
Using a properly licensed font not only protects you and your organisation from legal liability, it also supports and protects the rights of the typeface designers and font software publishers.
It would be wrong to suggest that there is a 'typical' font software EULA - but the answers we provide here are an attempt to outline the basic principles of font licensing.
Am I right in thinking that font licensing might be different for educational establishments?
Depending on the font software supplier, schools, colleges and universities will often have special licensing arrangements customised for their purposes, e.g. to enable collaborative working and distribution of software among students, or to authorise use of fonts on personal computers outside the institution. This will usually be arranged at an organisational level, so it's important to check with the appropriate department the terms of the licence agreed.
If I pay for a font, can I do what I like with that font?
The short answer is no - you can only do what is specified in the EULA. As previously mentioned, font software is licensed not purchased - you license font software for a limited use from the type designer or font software publisher/foundry that supplies it.
The licence is usually granted in the form of an EULA based on the number of computers with access to the font software. It's worth repeating again: Licence terms vary depending on the font software publisher, so always check carefully.
OK, so what am I allowed to do?
Again this varies. Most font software EULAs do not allow you to make copies of, or distribute font software to other organisations or individuals who do not have their own licence to use it. This includes service bureaux, design agencies and printers. Anyone using font software must have a licence.
So if your EULA says you can install the font on five computers , you must not install it on a sixth (neither within your own organisation nor externally) - for any purposes, even temporarily for printing.
Your organisation will be liable if you lend or give font software to others to use without a licence.
Does that mean I have to pay for another licence if I send a PDF for printing with an external printer?
In theory, yes. However, most EULAs allow you to embed fonts for ‘printing and preview' purposes. Where this is the case, so long as the printer does not edit the document they can print it for you without needing a licence of their own. If the licence does not allow font embedding then the printer will need their own licence.
EULAs usually permit one of four levels of embedding:
- Print and preview - where fonts can be embedded in a document for others to read or print, but others are not allowed to edit the document
- Editable - where fonts can be embedded in a document and others can edit the document
- Installable - where fonts can be embedded in a document and can be permanently installed on others' systems
- No embedding - where fonts cannot be embedded in a document
You can find more detail on each of these four permissions from Adobe.
So although the terms of the EULA will usually say that the service bureau/printer needs to have a licence of its own, this only means you cannot give them a copy of the font software - it doesn't necessarily mean they can't print a document for you: as long as the EULA allows for ‘print and preview' embedding and the printer does not edit the document, they can print it.
See for example Adobe's Font Licensing FAQ:
"You are not allowed to give fonts to service bureaux that do not already own a valid license for that specific font even if it is only to print your job ... If a service bureau does not own a valid license for the font software, you may only supply a PDF file or PostScript file with embedded fonts to the service bureau."
Adobe's Font Licensing FAQ
You could also ask your printer if they already have a licence for the font.
If I download a free font, presumably I can do what I like with it?
Not necessarily. You will still need to check the EULA - often it will only be free for private or personal use, or otherwise restricted.
It's also best to only use free fonts from reputable suppliers or foundries - you will find that most suppliers have a few fonts they are willing to give away. Unfortunately, there are countless websites offering 'free' or extremely low cost fonts that have either been stolen or copied from legitimate designs. Using such fonts is illegal and an infringement of the designer's copyright. Additionally, the font software will often be inferior to a legitimate copy - it may not have all the characters, or otherwise not function correctly.
There are a few sites where you will find open source font software, such as the Open Font Library and The League of Moveable Type. Both sites provide fonts that are licensed using the SIL Open Font License (OFL) which "allows the licensed fonts to be used, studied, modified and redistributed freely as long as they are not sold by themselves."
Photo by lrargerich on Flickr - used under a Creative Commons licence
What about all the fonts that came with my computer, or those extra ones that appeared when I installed a new application?
Operating system software (e.g. Microsoft Windows or Apple OS) always comes with some pre-loaded font software, also referred to as core fonts or system fonts.
Other software applications such as Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator or Microsoft Office also come bundled with fonts.
The general rule for these core fonts and bundled fonts is that they are licensed for the same number of users as the software they came with - i.e. if you purchased a licence to use Adobe Illustrator on one computer, you may only use the fonts that came with it on that same computer. You will need to check the terms of the original software licence for details.
"The fonts are governed by the same restrictions as the products they are supplied with. You are not allowed to copy, redistribute or reverse engineer the font files. For full details see the license agreement supplied with the product."
Microsoft Typography Font Redistribution FAQ
If you use Microsoft Windows, you can download a useful Font Properties Extension to view extra information about all the fonts on your computer. After installing the extension, you can right-click a font file, select Properties, then view information such as where the font came from, how it can be embedded, copyright and licensing details.
"Subject to the terms and conditions of this License, you may use the fonts included with the Apple Software to display and print content while running the Apple Software; however, you may only embed fonts in content if that is permitted by the embedding restrictions accompanying the font in question. These embedding restrictions can be found in the Font Book/Preview/Show Font Info panel"
Apple Hardware and Software Product Agreements
"Bundled fonts in retail products such as Adobe Illustrator software have been specially priced for use on a single computer. Moreover, applications themselves are only licensed to a single computer, so it is consistent to license fonts bundled with them in the same manner."
Adobe Font Licensing Frequently Asked Questions
I'd like to use the fonts I've licensed on our website - am I allowed to do that?
Until very recently there were only two real options for displaying typefaces on the web: either by using ‘web-safe' fonts (core fonts such as Arial or Times New Roman which users already have on their computers), or by using an image of the words (such as a GIF, JPEG or PNG).
Both these methods are covered by standard EULAs - the print and preview embedding permission usually covers the creation of image files for use on the web, and the web-safe fonts are covered by the operating system licence (see below).
Recent developments mean a third option is now available - new web font formats and licences allow fonts to be stored on web servers and rendered via a user's browser without them needing the font software on their local machine. You can see some examples on the FontShop Blog.
These web fonts can only be used on websites - they do not work on desktop systems - and have their own licences based on the average number of pageviews of the site using the font. The licences are specifically for web use, so even if you already have a non-web version of the font and accompanying EULA, you will still need a separate web font and licence to use it on the web.
What if I want to change the font a little bit - I've got some software that can edit individual font characters...
Most font software publishers do not allow their software to be modified in any way without permission from the publisher. Others may let you make alterations, but only if the resulting creation is not sold on or used outside of your organisation.
I'm a little unsure about where all the fonts on my computer came from and what I can use them for
As well as the tools mentioned above (Microsoft Windows Font Properties Extension, Apple OS X Font Book), some font retailers offer font checking tools such as Monotype Imaging's Fontwise FontCheck which counts up the number of fonts you have on your computer.
These tools are useful for individual computers - at an organisational level, it may sometimes be necessary to conduct a full font software audit, reviewing every font on every machine and checking their usage against the licences held. Organisations that use many fonts may choose to use font audit/licence management services such as Monotype Imaging's Fontwise or font management software such as Extensis Universal Type Server.
Adobe has some further information on how to identify where your fonts came from.
If you have any doubts about your organisation's licensing position with regard to any of the fonts you are using, we would recommend contacting the font software supplier or publisher.
In putting together this document we used the following sources:
- Adobe - Font Licensing Frequently Asked Questions
- Apple Mac OS X - Software Licence Agreement (PDF - requires Adobe Reader)
- Business Software Alliance - Font Guide: How Font Licensing is Critical to Your Communications (PDF - requires Adobe Reader)
- FontShop - End User Licence Agreements
- Microsoft Typography - Font Redistribution FAQ
- Monotype Imaging - Fontwise Eight Golden Rules of Font Licensing
- Monotype Imaging - Licensing: Frequently Asked Questions
Published in: Delivering and using