Simplifying Font Licensing

by | Feb 21, 2018 | Design & Development

Proper use of typography is one of the most important elements in any piece of design. The right typeface is essential in everything from logo design, user interface design and SEO. A poorly chosen typeface can lead to branding that doesn’t reflect the values of the company or a site that a user navigates away from because it is difficult to read. There is plenty of great content available detailing how to use typography effectively. Luckily, at Lupeer, we’ve been fortunate to work with clients that have been receptive to our typographic recommendations. What is less common, however, is understanding how font licensing works. This is what we aim to illuminate today.

Typeface Vs. Font

An old fashioned type setters workshop, the tools and typescripts lying in a worktop a – Johann Helgason

Before we get into font licensing, it is important to know the difference between typeface and font. Before the advent of digital publishing, every page in a printed piece was laid out in frame with metal letters which were rolled with ink and pressed onto a clean piece of paper. Printers needed thousands of individual metal blocks, each engraved with the character it represents. If you wanted to set an article in Baskerville you would need individual blocks for each letterform at each size you would want to print (10 point, 12 point, 14 point etc.) as well as for individual weights such as light and bold. This is where we get the terms typeface and font. In the example above, Baskerville would be the typeface. A font would be the individual blocks such as 10 point regular or 14 point bold. Today, type designers use programs such as Fontographer or Font Lab to create individual letterforms. Some type designers still create their letterforms by hand. Modern fonts are digital files that enable the printing of typefaces.

Read the License

Individual font files organized through a font manager –¬†Craig Forbes

The first thing to remember in font licensing is to read and understand the license. Most fonts fall into a select bucket of license type but the responsibility lies with the user to understand what they can and cannot do with a font. Desktop and Print Licensing more often than not allows you to use a font on your computer to create assets such as logos and printed materials. If you choose to manipulate the typeface the font represents, you are welcome to do so under this license (which Lupeer did with our recent logo redesign). Additionally, if you have a single license for a font, you can create deliverables for your clients such as a logo. In this case, the logo would be created using the font and exported as something else like an illustrator or EPS file. What you are not allowed to do is distribute that font to your client. You or the client would have to obtain a separate license to use it. In most cases, in order for someone to use a font they must have a single license for every computer in which it is installed. So a logo that uses Bodoni could be saved as an eps and distributed to multiple persons in your client’s organization as long as the creator of the logo has a license. However, if you create letterhead that requires the use of the font Bodoni medium, then each user of that letterhead must have a unique license for the font on their individual machines. In some cases, this can get expensive quickly. When it comes to working with clients, one option is to utilize fonts that the client already has licenses for. However, it is still important to read the license because commercial projects often require extended licenses and even some free fonts require payment for use commercially.

Open-Source Licensing

Open-source fonts are a popular choice among designers. Most open-source fonts utilize the Open Font License (or OFL) by SIL international. The OFL license allows you to freely use, modify, and distribute the fonts you work with. The only stipulation is that you cannot charge others to use them. Eventually, you can create a logo or website that utilizes an OFL licensed font like Google Font’s Open Sans and charge for it. What you can’t do is download Open Sans, modify it and sell it as a separate font. Google Fonts is by far the most popular font distributor using the OFL license. Google Fonts allows users to freely use their fonts on your computer, in print, and within websites and apps.

The Bottom Line

It is essential to understand that you almost always need some sort of license to use a font. The responsibility falls on the user to make sure they are using fonts ethically and legally. Below are some popular resources we use to learn more about font licensing.

Adobe Type Font Licensing Center
Monotype font Licensing
Typekit Font Licensing
Google Fonts Facts
SIL Open Font License


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