I robbed the serif and they say it is a capital offence

Tuesday, 11th March 2014

Until the advent of the web| font licensing and purchase was a relatively straightforward experience

Until the advent of the web, font licensing and purchase was a relatively straightforward experience. Typically, you would purchase a font licence and load it onto a computer; for a whole office, you’d purchase multiple user licences for multiple machines. Nice and simple.

For stock photo images, you’d purchase it and you use it on your printed material. If you wanted to use a larger version of the image, or perhaps in a prominent place such as a front or back cover, you might have had to pay more to the licensing library. This could vary for royalty and royalty free images, but again, nothing too complicated.

For software it was reasonably straight forward too. You purchase a licence, you use it on a computer. You purchase multiple licences for multiple computers. Of course we now have cloud services too, where some software can be paid for monthly.

However, font usage on the internet is a minefield of potential complications and hazards. Font licensing arrangements, at present, vary across different type foundries and independent font design companies for their usage online. Some usage is simple to understand, some takes more time to sink in as it is far more complex. If you’re not careful, and don’t read the documentation thoroughly, you could be exposing your company to potential litigation by infringing usage rights.

With advancing flexibility in web technology, website and online apps have the ability to use typographic creativity to enhance brand flare on media platforms. The requirement for custom font use to work hand in hand with search engine optimisation requirements is pushing designers and developers to use custom fonts in ‘heading and text formatting’ for HTML and CSS rather than as imagery.

Font licensing usage on the web is based on a number of approaches depending on the font you use and the particular foundry. Some common examples of how usage is quantified are:

1) the amount of visits or hits your site receives overall

2) how many hits on each particular page that the font resides on

3) how prominently the font is used and where it is used on the website (i.e headings, titles, etc)

4) the frequency the font is used on the app or website

There is then the question of whether it will be a flat “one off” fee or an “ongoing” fee for the font licence?

There is not then, as this demonstrates, a standardised way of doing things. The web is still progressing; however, licensing and its understanding in relation to fonts still appears to be quite a fractured and complex area.

There are now font libraries and websites dedicated to making life easier for online designers and copywriters, such as Adobe Typekit, @font face (font squirrel), cufon and typeface.js. However, even these tools are not completely foolproof. For example, with Adobe Typekit you have fonts that can only be used for prototyping in browsers and not on your pc desktop design programme. In such cases you would have to purchase the desktop licence to allow you to legally use the same font when designing mock-ups offline, or to present offline or on paper to clients.

The potential to use custom brand fonts, but to keep the quality of search engine optimisation of the published website high, is a good advancement and will continue to develop. However it can be a minefield out there, and as always ignorance is no defence. When using off the shelf fonts, always read the terms and ensure that others’ creative work is used only where and how it is authorised – or risk the legal wrath of the copyright holder. And if you’re employing an agency or designer, make sure they understand usage rights; because if not, it’s you who could be in trouble.

Be prepared and be safe with your fonts. This older, but still very relevant, article link helps to explain how: