Fun and Games with Font Licensing

Had an interesting question emailed to me by a designer by the name of Vaughan on  font licencing. It was asked…

“When creating a logo or design piece for a client, and you need a typeface which you don’t own, do you buy it and invoice the client or something else? If the former, do you then give them the typeface and remove it from your collection or is there an agreement that you can retain it’s use for other projects?

The last bit in bold is particularly interesting and worth a quick mention. There are 4 possible scenarios I can think of where the legal custody of a font could be challenged if you are unsure about the legalities.

Font licensing is not the clearest of subject in some aspects. On one hand it seems very clear, but in practical day to day environments, there are a few shades of grey that can cause some doubt.

Scenario One

Designer has a collection of previously purchased fonts in their library. They use a certain font for a logo design of which the client agrees look cool and decides to proceed with this design.

The designer proceeds with the job and lives happily ever after, at least once they get paid.

In this case the designer can install this font on up to 5 CPU’s, this is the usual accepted amount of CPU’s but individual type foundries may be less or more flexible with this.

However, this does not mean that any 5 people can ‘borrow’ the font. It is restricted to any 5 computers owned by the purchaser. Not your mate, not your uncles brother or your designer friend who works for a stingy employer.

Scenario Two

The designer finds a new font that needs to be purchased in order to complete the project. The designer decides to pay for the font out of their own pocket. The client benefits from the new font but does not own it, the designer does.

The designer should only install this font on computers they directly own. They must not pass this font onto the client, as this will be breach of the font licence.

Scenario three

The more interesting scenario. Same as Scenario Two but the client pays for the font. This maybe because the project budget makes it unrealistic for the designer to foot the cost of a new font.

In this case, the client owns the font and can install the font on up 5 CPUs or more if they have purchased more licensing. Now the interesting bit. Technically, the designer should not install that font on their own computer, even to work on the project the font was initially purchased for. Which clearly creates a small problem. In theory, the designer should buy that font if they need to use it, if they do not, they are in breach of the licensing.

Not the most practical of situation. The best case is that after the client has purchased it, the designer gets a copy from the client, installs it and deletes it once the project is complete. If it’s not deleted then it could be in breach of the licensing, especially if that font is used in further projects. How you play that one is between you and the client.

In an ideal world, the client should buy both you and themselves a copy of the font. That makes it all super legit.

Scenario Four

Take Scenario One or Two and add the client needing to have a copy of the font on their own computers. In both cases, the designer should not simply give a copy of the font to the client, this will be a breach of the licence. Potentially getting both designer and client in sticky poo poo.

If the client really needs it, then they must purchase a copy for themselves.

Relevant to all the scenarios

If you buy a font that has standard 5 CPU licensing and work in a studio that has 8 computers you are in breach of the licencing if you install that font on all 8 computers. In this case you need to upgrade the font licensing to cover how ever many machines the font will be installed on, regardless of how many end up actually using it.

Each font foundry may also have limitations to how the font can be used, some restrict use in commercial applications. With any font purchase, ensure you read the licensing, so you are clear where you stand.

Even free fonts can have ‘use’ restrictions, typically ‘denying’ commercial use and application. They may allow the font to be used for a commercial design if permission is asked. If you download a cool new free font, make sure you at least give the font designer due credit or take on board the font licensing.

A grey area is the customisation of commercial fonts for say logo designs and brand identities. I have approached this on a job by job, and foundry by foundry basis, but it’s worth keeping in mind. If you customise a commercial font, does the licence still apply? Does it depend on how much you have customised it? At what point in the customisation does the commercial font no longer have any routes to its original designer and design? If you customise fonts, be it a little tweak or a massive change, it’s worth checking with the foundry.

If in doubt with font customisation and tweaking, design your own font. Then you have no imposed licence issues to be concerned about.  :)

How you play any of this is between you and the client. I can’t condone any other action than ensuring you are adhering to the licence. In all cases, I would recommend that at the very least you inform the client of the risks of ignoring font licencing.

If I have overlooked any other scenarios please leave a comment below.

About this Post

Written by: Graham Smith: The Logo Smith

Date of Publication

First Published on: 2010/07/06 and Updated on: 2010/07/07

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