Common-sense font licensing

March 28th, 2013  |  Tags:

I recently licensed a very nice font that I may never use.

Most computer users don’t pay for font licenses; they simply use the fonts that came with their computer (or that were bundled with a software package like Microsoft Office or Adobe Creative Suite). Type is sort of tricky from an intellectual-property perspective; typefaces themselves are not copyrightable under U.S. law (which is why you can have Myriad and Segoe coexisting peacefully with Frutiger), but digital font files are considered computer programs that, when executed with certain parameters, produce images of glyphs. As computer programs, font files are copyrightable (and also subject to potentially-onerous licensing restrictions).

So, if you want to use a font, you’ll pay a fee based on how many styles you’re interested in (weights, italic or upright, and optical sizes), how you’re going to use it (personally or commercially), and how many computers you’re going to use it on. You’ll also agree not to do certain things with the font software: most font licenses prohibit using font software to produce logos or other designs in which the typeface is the primary element (without special permission), using font software to make document generators accessible to the general public (because then they wouldn’t need to license the font themselves in order to use them in designs), embedding font software in editable electronic documents that are accessible to the general public (because these can be trivially extracted or modified substantially by third parties who haven’t licensed the fonts), and (of course) using the font software to produce a derivative font.

These typical restrictions are largely reasonable (although the embedding restriction poses more of an inconvenience to legitimate users than a roadblock to scofflaws, who are likely to pay dearly for unlicensed use of faces), and I am in general sympathetic to the intellectual-property tightrope that typeface designers must walk in order to retain control of the products of their art and craft. Some common restrictions, though, only make sense if we’re dealing exclusively with a print world: for example, some licenses forbid using a font in the production of generally-available electronic documents altogether; others forbid producing electronic documents unless you convert text (which is searchable and readable by assistive technologies) to images (which are not). Since I almost exclusively produce electronic documents (most of which I give away for free, like slide decks, technical papers, and handouts), I don’t bother licensing these fonts. Other restrictions exclude large classes of potentially interesting uses, by disallowing production of physical objects that are not printed on paper (coffee mugs, t-shirts, stickers, etc.), or drawing distinctions between still images and animations that were produced with a given font. I have been known to design a few t-shirts (e.g., this sweet Zoltan the Jackdaw shirt), so I need to be aware of these kinds of restrictions as well.

Some foundries offer what I would consider to be common sense licenses: they allow you to use licensed font software for just about anything (with some narrow and reasonable exceptions that require a specialized license) as long as you don’t give the font software to other people in the course of using it. Mark Simonson’s standard license is an excellent example of the genre. Other foundries are much more restrictive in their licensing; these licenses are typically biased toward print use cases (although they may allow production of physical objects that are not printed on paper) and do not allow the production of electronic documents. An example of a more restrictive license is the standard license from Hoefler & Frere-Jones.

Now, I believe both Simonson’s license agreement and H&FJ’s license agreement are perfectly fine to the extent I can look at either and determine fairly easily whether or not I’ll be able to use a face from that foundry for the kinds of projects I’m interested in doing. (I considered licensing some H&FJ faces for my dissertation — likely the only print book I’ll ever produce — and for my personal slide deck style, but didn’t because I wouldn’t be able to give away a PDF made using those faces.1) The problem comes when a license agreement

  1. is vague (for example, when the meaning of a long series of clauses depends on how conjunctions and disjunctions might be grouped, or whether a restrictive clause is meant to genuinely restrict or merely explain);
  2. contradicts itself (for example, when the same applications are listed as both acceptable and unacceptable uses!), or
  3. when the font seller (not the foundry) doesn’t make the agreement itself available for review until after you’ve purchased a license.

When all three of these show up in the same transaction, then we’re left with a very nice font that I may never use.

(See also “Sold, not licensed” for some related legal and practical questions.)

1 This is their prerogative, and I don’t begrudge it to them — furthermore, their faces are excellent and if I ever have to set something exclusively for print, they will be near the top of my list.