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The Eight Golden Rules of Font Licensing

Posted by: Rod Kurtz on September 26, 2008

With the constant deadline pressure of running a small business, it is all too easy to accumulate an abundance of fonts and to lose track of where they came from. This means you might either be overlicensing or overinstalling fonts. The former wastes your money; the latter exposes you legally to noncompliance.

Keeping track of the quantity and location of your font licenses will ensure that you are using legal fonts in a legal manner. This protects your company and your customers. It also gives you peace of mind should you receive an audit request either from a foundry or industry watchdog organization.

The good news is that all businesses can benefit significantly by respecting the role that font software plays by following the eight golden rules for font licensing:

1. Font software is licensed, not purchased. You license font software for limited use from the type designer or font software publisher that supplies it.

2. The license is granted in the form of an End User License Agreement (EULA) according to the number of computers the font software is installed on. Licensing terms vary depending on the font software publisher, so check carefully.

3. Most font software EULAs do not allow you to make copies of or distribute font software to another organization or individual who does not also have a license to use it. This, for example, includes service bureaus, design agencies, PR companies, advertising agencies, and printers. In summary, anyone using font software must have a license.

4. Most font publishers allow users to embed font software into documents, but only for previewing and printing.

5. Most font software publishers will allow users to create static images from font software (such as a GIF file used as a Web banner).

6. Most font software publishers will not allow their software to be modified in any way without permission from the publisher.

7. Your company will be liable if you lend or give font software to others to use without a license.

8. If you have any doubts about your company’s licensing position, contact your font supplier or publisher.

To quickly scan your computer to find out how many fonts you have, use our free font audit tool at on the Business Software Alliance Web site.

Allan Haley
Director of Words and Letters
Monotype Imaging
Woburn, MA

Reader Comments

Terry Roberts

September 26, 2008 3:59 PM

In a world where one can buy a dvd with 15,000 fonts for $20.00, your article, while well written and perhaps legally correct(I am not a attorney so couldn't say for sure) becomes less relevant as each day passes.
More and more printshops demand pdf files for print which keeps them from having to remain up to date with all the native software and FONTS.

Allan Haley

October 1, 2008 4:22 PM

First, there are thousands of typeface designers and font distributors who create and sell hundreds of thousands of fonts that believe their products have value over a few pennies.

Second, print shops may demand PDFs, but someone will be purchasing the software and fonts to produce them.

Finally, fonts are more relevant and are used in more places than ever before. They are used for everything from publications like Business Week and Web sites to cell phones and heads-up displays in automobiles.


December 19, 2008 9:22 AM

As a designer myself I'm fully on board with compensating typographers and foundries for their work and always make a point of billing clients for the fonts they end up using. That said, I think the licensing laws, at least as I understand them, are unworkable when applied to the graphic design industry.

Let's say I'm developing a new corporate ID or brochure - I might start out trying 20ish different type options and through the creative process narrow this down to 2 or 3 appropriate ones to present to a client in mock-up visuals, the client will then express a preference and over the course of the project we'll refine the design to the point where we know what font we're using. At that point, when the new ID is delivered and the client needs a letterhead, business card, etc. I instruct them they need to purchase the fonts used and supply it to printers, web developers, etc. It seems ridiculous to suggest that I ought to own a full licence to those 20ish initial fonts just in order to determine whether or not they are right for the job - it's prohibitively expensive for the self-employed designer, especially when the concept is developed as part of a free pitch scenario, as often happens, and I'm up against large agencies with huge paid for libraries at their disposal. The situation is slightly different for printers who can recharge the purchase cost for a job as the font is defined already, if I tried to bill my clients for those 19 fonts I tried but they won't need I'd be laughed out of the room.

Ultimately, I am not the end user of the font - I'm more of a salesman for the font foundry, without my creative work the client won't be buying any new fonts at all. They'd probably stick with what they have or what comes with Windows. This is analagous to using stock imagery - I can use any image I like in creative mockups on the understanding that the rights to use it are paid for when the final execution is implemented. I'm not expected to own the full Getty library in order to develop concepts for clients.

As a result of all this almost every designer I know have pirated copies of the Monotype, Adobe, Linotype, etc. libraries - with a legit set of these costing in the tens of thousands it's simply not an option to purchase them. The only times I've encountered legit libraries is while at large creative agencies with the resources to 'cover their arses' from a legal point of view, and even there I never met anyone who thought it was a fair or just situation.

What is the type industry's response to this sort of scenario? So far the closest I've seen are various online services that allow you to preview fonts with copy of your choice, but these are next to useless for anything beyond evaluating basic body copy, if I want to individually kern letters, mix up character sizes and styles in the same piece, etc. a copy of the actual font is the only practical option. It seems to me that 'creative user' EULA variation - allowing for use of the faces for mock-up and development work, but not production or distribution - would be a sensible solution but I've never seen mention of anything along these lines.

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