Why You Can’t Have My Font Files

Business and creative culture now runs on creative rights and intellectual property. Theft, abuse and alteration of intellectual property is as rampant as ID theft, and becoming more common because people are unaware and uninformed.


Font abuse

Font abuse – the unauthorized downloading, copying and sharing of digital typeface files – is a less-recognized form of copyright infringement than photography, illustration, software, music, and other intellectual property, but that is changing. Read about 2 high-profile lawsuits concerning font misuse:

Free fonts are available from sites like DaFont and FontSpace for personal or non-commercial use. Our discussion pertains to fonts that require licenses.

Licensed fonts are preferred over fonts obtained via free download, because they are scalable, proportional and come with all the punctuation, glyphs, ligatures and ornaments a designer needs when styling type. Free fonts do not always come with complete capability and often cannot be kerned (letter-spaced).


Fonts are licensed, not sold

We’re always better off purchasing licenses rather than acquiring fonts via other means. Additionally, licenses support the designers and foundries who created and own the copyrights to them. Just as we graphic designers like to be paid for our work, so do those among us who are type designers. Purchasing gives us the authority to use the fonts (license), and keeps us from having to be unwillingly engaged in infringement suits. Another reason to purchase fonts is that you’re getting the genuine item and not a poorly-contrived knock-off.

Presentation on type licensing and using type  by type designer Christopher Slye at the San Francisco Public Library

Like software, music and stock images, fonts are not sold as retail items but are licensed for use. Copyrights remain with the authors, and we are authorized to use the fonts. Font licenses can differ from foundry to foundry and even from font to font. For instance, I just purchased a font that I can use for non-profit and commercial purposes, but I cannot send the font files to a printer. Other restrictions may include commercial uses, uses on items for resale, uses in e-publications, and the like. How do you know what’s permitted and what’s not? Read the EULA.


What is an EULA?

When you purchase a license (stock images, audio clips, ebooks, software and fonts) there is this thing known as the EULA — the End User License Agreement — that requires your agreement.  The EULA describes what you can and cannot do with the fonts. It describes the limits of your authority where the font is concerned. In an online purchase process, an agree button must be clicked before the purchase is completed. It’s a good idea to actually read that agreement and know what you’re committing to, and also to save a copy of it onto you computer for later reference.

According to a survey by Extensis, 80% of font purchasers click the agree button without first reading the license, and therefore remain clueless about how, when and where they are permitted to use and install the font. Lack of awareness is the foundation for abuse.

Many font foundries embed a unique set of information into the font when it is purchased, so that the fonts can be tracked and monitored by the licensor. Some even require phone numbers from purchasers and call to verify the purchaser and to make sure the EULA is understood before approving the purchase. This tactic initiates a relationship between the licensor and the licensee, and makes the licensee is more aware of the terms of purchase and less likely to abuse their license.


5 Recommendations for using fonts

  • When purchasing fonts, read the entire EULA before you click the Agree button, and save a copy to your computer. If you’re knowledgable about what you can and can’t do, you’re more likely to be in compliance.
  • Consider implementing an online font management system, such as Universal Type Server or Typekit.
  • Outline or rasterize all fonts used in a design before sending files to a printer, and provide a PDF instead of a package. This prevents others from being able to access the font files directly.
  • If a client requests the original working files for a project, provide them with the URLs where they can purchase their own licenses instead of giving them the font files. My contracts include a clause stating that fonts cannot be transferred.
  • Restrict the number of font installations to what is specified in the license agreement. In the case of multiple users in the workplace or schools, install fonts onto a local server that can be accessed by authorized users on the network.


What about use by students?

Students are not exempt from following licensing restrictions. That means they should not make copies of font files installed on school computers and servers. In fact, the best means for students to learn appropriate practices and respect for intellectual property and creative rights is while in school.

When we, as creators of intellectual property, understand the real value of the fonts we work with, compliance and protection will become a regular practice. We’ll be supporting our fellow designers and keeping ourselves clear of the consequences of misuse.


What about sending fonts to a printer?

In the past, we sent packaged up all the images and font files along with a layout document and sent them off to a printer. The printer would output and print the art files, not design or edit the files. Currently we create a press-quality PDF with fonts and images embedded. Or we outline the type in our art files instead of embed the fonts. Either way, the printer is really only supposed to be printing the files, not doing any editing. If a printer can open an Adobe Creative Cloud file, they will also have their own font license.


What about Typekit and Google fonts?

If you’re using Adobe Typekit fonts included in your Creative Cloud license, you can certainly bundle fonts in InDesign and transfer them to your client. But they need to have their own license for Adobe products. So you still can’t transfer font files without violating Adobe’s license terms. In this case there’s no need to transfer the fonts since the client has their own direct access via their license.

Google fonts, which are primarily for web use, are open source and anyone can use them. Because they’re open source, there’s really no need to transfer font files since your client can freely access them on their own.


Disclaimer: I am not an attorney. I do no offer legal advice. The content of this article is provided for information purposes only. If you need legal advice about copyright, licensing and issues of intellectual property, please consult with a qualified, licensed attorney in your area.