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Font Licensing 101: Everything You Need to Know (Over-Simplified)

Font Licensing 101: Everything You Need to Know (Over-Simplified) Bild zum Hauptartikel
Gepostet am August 4, 2021 Von Corbie Kortz

Are you confused about the difference between a font, a font family, and a typeface? Or the different types of font licenses and when and how to use them? How to find out if a font has a license or if you even need one at all? What can happen if you get caught without one? Keep reading and let’s take a closer look. So, what is the difference?

the difference between typeface, font, and font family

The Difference Between Typeface, Font, and Font Family

A typeface is a collection of letters, numbers, and punctuation in a certain shape and style. For instance, Calibri, Ariel, and Times New Roman are all typefaces that most of us are familiar with.

Calibri, Ariel, and Times New Roman

A font is a set of characters of a specific size and weight. For instance, “Times New Roman, size 10, regular” would be a different font than “Times New Roman, size 12, Italics”.

Times New Roman

A font family is a collection of related fonts. Such as Ariel regular, Ariel Narrow, Ariel Bold, Ariel Italics, and Ariel Bold Italics.

Ariel Font Family

Simply put, the style of text that you choose when you are designing is the typeface, the file that contains the typeface is the font, and the collection of variations in the font is the font family.

The terms “font” and “typeface” have often been used as one-in-the-same, even in the professional world, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. You’ll just want to be sure to use the proper terms in the design world.

what is font licensing anyway

What is Font Licensing Anyway?

A font license is basically permission to use a font in a specific way. Fonts are a software product that you download, install, and use on your computer, and just like other software products that you download, install, and use on your computer, they are subject to licensing.

software download icon

Each font license has a different set of conditions on how you can use the fonts. If you are a designer who plans to use your fonts commercially, it is very important that you check the specific licenses for the rules on how you can use them. You can find these rules in the EULA (End Users License Agreement) that is attached to every font you purchase and download. If you don’t have one, you can find it with a quick search on the internet. Even free fonts have an EULA.

end users license agreement

Font licensing gets tricky though because each foundry and online font shop has a different usage agreement and a different pricing structure, but it all really depends on how you are going to use the font. The license and its cost can vary greatly from whether you are going to make a bunch of T-shirts or use it on a website that gets over 10 million views a month.

font licensing gets tricky

For examples of different foundries and their font licensing guidelines, Creative Fabrica offers Single Sale Font Licensing and Subscription Font Licensing. You may also want to see Google Font Licensing and Adobe Font Licensing for comparison.

font licensing

Before you delve into the different licenses, decide how you will be using the font. There are two basic ways of usage: personal and commercial.

personal or commercial use

Personal and Commercial Use

Personal use is when you create something independently and without direct intent of making a profit – your own website, t-shirts for a reunion, a term paper, or garage sale signs – and a desktop license will cover just about anything that you create on your computer.

garage sale

Commercial use is when you are working on behalf of clients with the intent to make money. Licensing includes all types of business communication materials such as business cards, brochures, websites, etc., and it is your responsibility, as a designer, to make sure that the fonts used are properly licensed and that your clients’ needs are met.

commercial use business card

Depending on how you plan to use the font determines which licenses you need to research, so let’s look at some of the different types of font licensing and what they’re used for.

free font license

Free Font License or Open Font Licenses

Free Font Licenses? It can’t get better than free, can it? But just because a font is labeled “Free”, doesn’t mean you can use it any way you want to. And most of the time, you get what you pay for. Many of the free fonts out there lack the high-quality design features that you get from reputable foundries.

A free font license allows you to use the font in your own design work and for personal use, but if you are planning to make a profit, that’s when you are using the font commercially and the price kicks in.

You can, however, find some excellent fonts with a free font license. Visit Google Fonts for over 950 fonts to choose from.

desktop font license

Desktop or Print License

A desktop license is a basic license, and probably the most popular, that applies to most of the typefaces that come on your computer and allows you to design items for print, such as t-shirts, mugs, posters, business cards, and more. The final products can be sold if the font itself is not the main selling point of your product.

The fonts under this license can appear in unlimited personal and commercial projects including, but not limited to, physical end products, broadcasting (video), social media, packaging, and paid ads.

social media

You can create a client logo with a font under this license. You can create as many products – business cards, flyers, brochures – as your client wants but you cannot give them the font. Your client cannot use the font unless they also have a license to do so.

Because the font is technically a software, you cannot embed the font on a website or in an app, but you can create static images that can then be put onto websites. When you make an image, the software stays on your computer and the image is just a bunch of pixels.

This license is restricted to the number of users and devices that it is installed on. Some sellers offer what is called a scalable license, which means that as you buy more desks, you buy more licenses.

scalable licenses

One thing that is strictly forbidden is to give your client the desktop licensed font. They will have to purchase their own license if they want to use the font.

webfont license

WebFont License

Webfont licenses allow you to embed a font in the code of a website so that it displays properly on the end user’s screen.

embed font into website

When using a webfont you will most likely be asked to embed a code into your website so that the vendor or foundry can track your traffic. Webfonts are limited to “monthly views” on your website. Occasionally, webfonts will not have any traffic restrictions but rather work on time restrictions and/or domain basis.

app license

App License

If you are working with a client and they want an app to go along with the website you just built, you will need a separate app license to do so. This license comes on a per-app basis and usually as the user base grows so do the costs.

epub license

ePub License

The ePub license is for digital books and magazines.

font license for digital books and magazines

Take note of the licensing conditions here because you may need to re-license a font if you update an ebook or release a new version. You may need to buy a new license for each issue of a magazine that you publish. There may also be restrictions on the number of readers and timescale so be sure to read the agreement thoroughly.

server font license

Server Font License

The server font license is for customizable products most often found on Print on Demand sites where the client can customize the wording using the font that you provide.

print on demand

This license may have a time restriction and you may have to have a license for each CPU (Central Processing Unit) in your server package.

unlimited font license

Unlimited Font License

If your client is a large organization, you might want to ask for an unlimited license from the foundry.

you can do what you want to

An unlimited license would give your client the right to use the font on an unlimited number of computers and for any offline purpose they wish. Unlimited licenses usually cost around $10,000, but your client would be covered and so would you as their design agent, for creating graphics for their website, ad campaigns, app, etc.

exclusive font license

Exclusive Font License

You could even ask a foundry to create an exclusive font for your client to use for all their projects.

yours only exclusive font license

The cost for this type of license starts at $30,000 but only your client would be able to use the fonts under this type of licensing.

guidelines for font licensing

Guidelines for Font Licensing

So, depending on how you will use a font will determine which font license or licenses you need. Even if your client uses only one typeface for their brand, the font software will need to be licensed for each of the different environments that it will be used.

do you even need a font license?

Do You Even Need a Font License?

The bottom line is: Yes! And if you’re not sure, assume that you do then check the specifics of the typeface that you are using and how you will be using it. Sticking to this routine will keep you out of hot water with font licensing issues.

stay out of hot water

For personal projects, a desktop license is usually all you’ll need.

personal use font licensing

For client projects, it is best to use a typeface that the client has a license to use. Before you start any projects, make sure that it is ok. Anytime you are using a font for monetary gain, be sure to read every line of the agreement.

commercial use font licensing

For digital projects, you’ll need fonts that can be used in a variety of environments. This is when a subscription service is great to have.

digital use font licensing

A subscription plan allows you to buy numerous fonts that you can use in many projects and all the proper licenses are included. Creative Fabrica has a great subscription service with over 64,000 fonts to choose from and with over 500 free fonts for commercial use.

Creative Fabrica offers a subscription license to go along with your subscription where all fonts and other graphics that you download are automatically covered.

If you aren’t quite ready to start your subscription but you found a font that you want, they also have a single sales license so that when you purchase a font from the site, you will pay a one-time fee and that single sales license is valid forever.

You can even convert your fonts into webfonts with the free Webfont Generator. You can easily convert your OTF and TTF font files into usable webfonts.

font licensing is an ethical issue

Ethically Speaking

Font licensing is an ethical issue. Fonts are made by the human hand. Hours upon hours can be dedicated to the designing of a font. A designer has often put his/her heart and soul into the creation, and this is what you are paying for when you license a font. This is how they feed their kids and pay their bills.

You get paid for the job that you do and even though a designer is an artist producing intellectual property, in the form of a font or typeface, they deserve to be paid for their intellectual property.

what can happen if you use a font without a license?

What can happen if you use a font without a license?

You can be held civilly responsible and be sued by the copyright owner, and then your client can also be sued, putting your client at risk, and possibly ruining your reputation as a designer. One such lawsuit involves this Miracle Mop Maker from the Home Shopping Network.

Companies have been threatened with lawsuits or made to pay what they should have paid anyway, or flat out sued for using fonts that weren’t licensed for what they were used for.

font licensing lawsuits

Here’s a list of substantial lawsuits for illegal font use:

  • A Different “Type” of Lawsuit (Berthold vs Target over Akzidenz-Grotesk, 2017, $150,000 per infringement)
  • Font Maker Sues Universal Music over Vamps logo (Hype for Type vs Universal Music Group over Vamps logo usage, 2017, $1.25M plus the destruction of infringing materials)
  • Berthold says Volvo violated its copyright regarding typeface (2017, $30,000/day)
  • My Little Pony toymaker sued over alleged font misuse – BBC News (Font Bros vs Hasbro over Generation B, Jan 2016, $150,000 per infringement)
  • Microsoft Sued for $1.5 Million Over Hebrew Type Font (2013)
  • Harry Potter and the Dangers of Font Non-Compliance / NBC Universal Accused of Million-Dollar ‘Harry Potter’ Font Theft (2011)—this was settled out of court, details unknown.
  • Font Bureau clashes with NBC over font licensing (2009, $2M)

More information can be found at Fontfabric.

how to avoid problems with font licensing

How Do You Avoid Problems?

The best way to avoid font licensing issues is to always assume that the font you are using, especially if it is for client work, needs a license and make license checking a part of your designing routine. If you aren’t sure whether a particular font that you have has a license or not, you can do a search on Google by the font name.

font licensing conclusion


The most important take-away from font licensing is that you will most likely need some sort of license for every font that you will work with and that not all licenses are the same. They vary by the creator and the way they will be used.

Think about how you’ll use a font every time you start a new project. Be sure to license each typeface for the way you’re going to use it and keep the personal licenses and commercial licenses separate. If you are doing a lot of commercial work and client work, you may even want to invest in a software program to keep track of it all. Creative Fabrica has a great free online font managing service with its FontCloud that you may want to check out.

Font licensing and all the different uses can be confusing and overwhelming. Personally, if you are a designer and use fonts and other graphics frequently, the best option is to have a subscription to a service like Creative Fabrica, which has all the licensing for the different uses covered for you.

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