How We’re Making Good Font Licensing Great

How We’re Making Good Font Licensing Great

Licensing is complex & mind-numbing. Here's what we've done to make it easier.

Font licensing has always been hard to understand and navigate. But recent developments have only added confusion and headaches for designers wanting to honor these license agreements. The following post gives an overview of this growing problem and how we are working to bring clarity and simplicity to font buying.

When you purchase a font, you are not actually buying the font itself, you are buying a font license. And a font license is often long and full of lawyer-language that is dense and hard to read. Sometimes, embedded in the license, are restrictions that most would consider atypical. These clauses often put difficult, onerous demands on designers, that if ignored could lead to license violations and expose you to potential legal action.

Thankfully, the bulk of font licenses you find on Fontspring are tame and common-sense. You will find that normal, every-day use, even in a busy agency, never brings you out of compliance with these licenses. Fontspring has always, from the beginning, held firmly to the idea of clear, common-sense licensing. It is the primary foundation on which our business rests. We go so far as to call ourselves “Worry-Free” and mean it. We want you to come here and know that you will not be put in a difficult licensing situation. And yet to accommodate all font designers, and offer the fullest breadth of type we can, we sometimes need to bend what we allow on our site. Those two ideas of being worry-free, and accommodating don’t always mix well.

Installation Restrictions

For example, many fonts in the past were licensed based on the number of CPUs. In today’s world where every device has multiple CPUs, including your phone, this kind of language is impossible to stay in compliance with. Here is Emigre’s restriction from 1996:

Each Emigre Font purchase is licensed for use on a single printer or output device in conjunction with a maximum of 5 CPUs at one location. This means that your customer can install the fonts on up to five CPUs for use with one output device, such as a laser printer.

An output device is any printer, such as a Linotronic rasterizer, laser printer, or dot-matrix printer, any video display terminal or any other device where display is generated from the font software outlines, such as with the use of Adobe Type Manager, or if the font is to be used primarily for display terminals that generate the output, as in multimedia CD.

Emigre nowadays has more sensible licensing:

The Emigre Font Software is licensed for use at one (1) location with a maximum of five (5) devices.

And yet some current licenses still retain similar language that would be impossible to be compliant with.

End-Use Restrictions

New end-use limits have been growing in popularity, which we find troubling. Specifically, some licenses are trying to restrict the particular context a typeface can be used. This includes things like broadcast television, logo design and merchandise.

To us, it is common sense that if you can produce artwork on a desktop computer in a raster format, it doesn’t matter where it shows up, or how often. The font has become part of a larger work, and no longer is its own “thing”.

Impression Restrictions

Another restriction we find burdensome is the limiting of the number of impressions the font can be used. For instance if you were to design a collateral system using an impressions-restricted font, you could only print a certain quantity before you would be required to pay more money. This limit is often set to 250,000. As soon as you print 250,001, you trigger the clause and will need to upgrade your license.

We find this particularly bad, since most designers buy fonts and hold them for many years. The same font could be used on many different products and campaigns, often without knowledge of it’s impression restriction. And be careful with anything online. Consider a Facebook image that goes “viral.” Those impressions count too, somehow.

Note that some competitor distributors include this kind of clause in their default license. Be on the lookout.

Content Restrictions

This one, thankfully is most rare, and has typically only appeared in freeware and shareware licenses. But we’ve seen instances where the license singles out particular political, religious and civic topics that cannot be the basis for a design using the fonts. How will a designer know, or keep track of which fonts cannot be used for what content? This, like the quantity limits are an unreasonable demand on designers.

Fontspring’s Solution

We have taken it on ourselves to read every single license from every single foundry. That wore us out, as you can imagine. But after a good nights sleep, we took this knowledge to our website and made three changes:

1. Worry-Free Seal of Approval

First, we separated all the licenses into two piles, one we call “Worry-Free” and the second pile we call “With Caution”. All licenses that pass our Worry-Free test receive a badge that indicates that the license is unaffected by these extra-ordinary clauses. Look for the badge in our listings in the blue bar under each family, as well as on the family page near the description.

2. License Flags

On each family page, you’ll see a list of the available licenses. Next to each will be a symbol that describes the “Worry-Free” status of that license. If a license is not Worry-Free, it will have a Caution icon along with a pop-up explanation of the restrictions.

3. License Highlights

Clicking on a license will now show the full license text and a brief, clear, obvious explanation of any restrictions in the license.

Armed with this knowledge, you will be able to navigate our site, buying fonts with confidence.

Have any questions? Any ideas on how we can bring even greater clarity to font licensing? Let us know in the comments.

Ethan Dunham
Ethan Dunham
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