Client Guide: Font Licensing

By Tom,

July 2023

The Letters XYZ depicting fonts
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.

So you know typography is important, but do you know enough about font licensing to ensure you're legally protected? Here's a quick guide.

A brief introduction to fonts

What’s the difference between fonts and typefaces?

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 types of font files are there?

When dealing with fonts you might notice that there are a number of different file types. Each has its own use and functionality:

TrueType Font (.TTF)

This was the first mainstream font format developed so fonts could be used on both Windows and Mac computers for the first time. TTF files offer a basic character set and are used in desktop publishing, design for print and applying typography to graphics and images.

OpenType Font (.OTF)

The OTF format was introduced 20 years after TTF fonts offering many additional capabilities that its predecessor didn’t. OTF fonts can contain widely expanded character sets, allowing for alternative characters, typographic styling like ligatures and multi-language support. Although its uses are the same as TTF, the OTF format is now the preferred file format.

Web Open Font Format (.WOFF and .WOFF2)

WOFF was the first font format developed exclusively for use on websites and other online platforms viewed in a web browser. The format includes all the features of .TTF and .OTF formats, with the addition of metadata, allowing for the inclusion of licence information within the font file itself, to avoid copyright infringement. This format is also compressed, allowing them to load faster in web browsers.

WOFF2 is the updated version, providing additional compression to speed up loading times even more.

Variable Fonts

Variable fonts are increasing in popularity. While they’re not a specific format, and are often available in the formats listed above, they provide a distinct advantage over traditional fonts—customisation and flexibility. Instead of having set versions (regular, medium, bold, extra bold, italic etc), variable fonts contain a set of parameters that can be modified with great precision. These parameters provide control of exactly how bold, slanted and in some cases how wide or tall a font is, without relying on multiple versions of the font.

What is a licence?

A font is technically a piece of computer software and just like any software, you need to obtain a licence 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 as the client, 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.

What type of font licence should I get?

There’s a few ways that fonts can be licenced and some things to consider:

Desktop licence

Most font foundries (the company that makes the font) provide their fonts licences for desktop use. This licence covers the installation and use of a font in computer programs such as desktop publishing and design software, including Word and PowerPoint.

Things to consider with Desktop licences

Per user licensing

Most commercially available fonts are licensed on a per user basis (especially desktop 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.

Pay once or recurring fee

Some font foundries sell their licence for a one-off fee, meaning you can use them for as long as you like (for the number of people you’ve bought licences for). Other foundries sell licences that only cover a period of time, after which a new licence will need to be purchased. This period is commonly 1, 3, or 5 years.

Restrictive licences

As I mentioned above, some desktop 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.

Stat based licences

Some desktop font licences are sold on a pricing scale based on specific business numbers. These include business size (based on revenue and/or number of employees), social follower numbers or the number of times a design using the font might be seen (eg TV adverts/billboard adverts).

Webfont licence

Increasingly, font foundries are offering a special licence for use exclusively on the web, provided in .WOFF format. These fonts can only be used for websites viewed in a web browser, and may be sold with the same restrictions as desktop fonts.

Things to consider with Webfont licences

Traffic based licences

Webfonts licence fees are usually based on the amount of traffic your website gets. This can either be based on ‘unique visitors’ or ‘page views’, so it’s wise to think ahead. For instance, if you’re aiming to grow an online business with millions of visitors, you should consider your font choice and licence early on as costs can spiral.

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. Adobe Fonts is an example of this.

Things to consider with Cloud font licences

Confusing set up and access

This one is specific to Adobe Fonts. It’s not actually possible to pay only for access to fonts. Instead you have to sign up for one of Adobe’s software packages, as a way of gaining access. 

Losing your fonts

If you do sign up to a cloud font service it’s possible that the font foundry who designed it will decide to remove it from the service at some point. Again, we’ve only experienced this with Adobe Fonts, but it’s a risk with all Cloud font services that provide fonts from different foundries. Plenty of notice is usually provided as well as a grace period, but is something to consider.

Open-source licence

Open source usually refers to ‘free to use’. Google fonts is a good example of this. These fonts still have a licence attached to them but are free to use as you like, even commercially with minimal restrictions.

Things to consider with Open-source licences

Sometimes you get what you (don’t) pay for

There are many excellent, high quality Open-source fonts available. However, there are many more poorly executed or down right ugly options too. Choose carefully. Also, some Open-source fonts come with a very minimal character set, meaning that you may not be able to use special characters, punctuation or language specific letters.

Free is popular

As you can imagine, free fonts are very popular. As a result it means that the best ones are overused and don’t offer a good way to make your brand unique.

Bespoke font licence

Commercially available fonts are licensed, rather than sold. That means any company can use that font. There are a number of foundries who design bespoke fonts that are owned exclusively by the licence holder. Often large brands will choose a bespoke font to ensure it fits in with their brand, or as a way to reduce ongoing licensing costs. 

Things to consider with Bespoke font licences

They can get expensive

Designing fonts is really hard, takes tremendous skill and a lot of time. So bespoke fonts are very expensive, costing up to £50k and beyond.

A long-term investment

Due to their cost, bespoke fonts should be a long term investment. So it’s important to ensure that the style of the font will age well without needing to be replaced quickly.

Top tips

Font licensing is a complex business, so I’ve skimmed over some of the details 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.

When setting your budget for font licences, remember to consider:

  • How many computers will the font be installed on?
  • How big is your company (revenue and headcount)?
  • How many social followers do you have?
  • How many unique visits and page views does your website get?
  • What will you use the font for (eg your logo, promotional materials, printed materials, out of home advertising, TV, social media etc?
  • How might these considerations change in the future alongside your growth?

It’s really important that you and your designer discuss this early in the project so they can choose a font that has a licence that is appropriate for your business.

Check the detail and take responsibility

You’re liable if things go wrong. Check the licence details to make sure you’re covered. Make sure your designer has considered all the uses of the fonts before purchasing a licence.

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 branding, including fonts and licences drop us a line. We’ll bring the biscuits.