Client Guide: Font Licensing

By Tom,

October 2017

Typography is a hugely important part of a brand. Type creates recognition, adds personality and helps tie an identity together. In fact a brand can become recognisable from type use alone.
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So, you know typography and fonts are important, but do you know enough about licensing to ensure you’re legally protected? Here’s a quick guide.

Jargon buster

Before we get into detail, let's bust a bit of jargon that might be confusing. The terms ‘typeface’ and ‘font’ are different. A ‘font’ refers to a single weight, style or size of text, such as Light, Regular, Bold or Italic. The entire collection of weights and styles make up a ‘typeface’. So, it’s often cheaper to buy licences for the individual ‘fonts’ you need, rather than a whole ‘typeface’. For that reason, and for simplicity I’m going to use the term ‘font’ from here on out.

What is a licence?

A font is technically a piece of computer software, and just like any software you need to obtain a license before installing it. All fonts have licences. Some are free. Some cost money. Some licences are very relaxed about their use. Some are extremely restrictive (more on that later).

Why should I care?

In short: because you’re liable if you’re found to be using a font without a licence. Even if your designer or agency has created a logo, artwork or a website on your behalf, it is the client's responsibility to ensure the correct licence has been purchased. Make sure you work with an agency who can provide guidance.

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What type of licence should I get?

There’s a few ways that fonts can be licenced:

Full licence purchase

Some font foundries (the company that makes the font) will offer a one-off fee to licence a font. This means you can pay once and use it as much as you like within the terms of the licence. These fonts are predominantly used for offline use (for print, static graphics etc).

Webfont license

Increasingly, font foundries are offering a special licence for use exclusively on the web. These can be one-off, monthly, or annual charges—often based on the amount of monthly traffic you get.

Cloud font licensing

There are a number of services that provide access to many typefaces for a monthly fee. These can usually be used both online and offline for print. Typekit is a good example of this.

Open-source licence

Open source usually refers to ‘free to use’. Google fonts is a good example of this. But, be cautious: like anything, things that are free are sometimes lower quality and most certainly overused, so may not be suitable for representing your brand.

Exclusive licence

Commercially available typefaces are licensed, rather than sold. That means any company can use that typeface. There are a number of foundries who offer bespoke, one-off typefaces but these can end up costing £50k plus.

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Some things to look out for...

Per user licensing

Most commercially available fonts are licensed on a per user basis (especially full licence purchase fonts). So if you have 50 people in your company and you want them all to use your brand font, you’ll need 50 licences.

Normally our advice would be to have a standard fallback font (like Arial) for those outside the marketing team who will use them only in letters, emails, documents etc.

Traffic based licences

As webfonts licence fees are usually based on the amount of traffic your website gets, it’s wise to think ahead. For instance, if you’re aiming to grow and online business with millions of visitors, you should consider your font choice and licence early on.

Restrictive licences

As I mentioned above, some font licences are very restrictive. That means, you’re either not allowed to use a font for specific uses at all, or you’ll need to pay for additional licences to do so.

A good example of this is Lineto’s ‘Circular’. It’s a lovely set of fonts, used by big brands such as Spotify and Airbnb. Lineto’s licence is very restrictive. For instance, without an additional licence you can’t use it: as a logo, in social media, in video, on merchandise (mugs, pens etc) or email design.

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Top tips

Font licensing is a complex business, so I’ve skimmed over some of the detail here. But here’s a couple of tips to bear in mind:

Speak to your designer

If your designer has not mentioned font licensing as part of their pitch or proposal, bring it up with them. They should be able to talk to you about the various options.

Set a budget

Just like photography and illustration, it’s wise to put aside some budget for font licences as part of your project (especially brand and print work). Make sure your designer considers this when costing the project.

Check the detail

You’re liable if things go wrong. Check the licence details to make sure you’re covered.

Review your licence

Businesses change, licences rarely do. It’s quite possible for you to outgrow, or need more from your font licence. Check them annually to make sure you’re staying within the terms.

Hopefully this post helps clear up some confusion, or at least highlights some things to look out for.

If you’d like to talk more about fonts and licences drop us a line. We’ll bring the biscuits.