Avoiding a Fontastrophe: Why You Should Never Ask Your Agency to Send Fonts to You

Avoiding a Fontastrophe: Why You Should Never Ask Your Agency to Send Fonts to You
Josh Norman
Josh Norman
Principal / Chief Creative Officer

Fonts. They’re literally everywhere you look, on everything you read. Many times, they are a core component of graphic design and website development. Type purists like to point out, “You can’t even design without type.” And that’s true, assuming your work requires something to be read.

With our eyes so trained to recognize words thousands of times throughout the course of any given day, it’s no wonder that the legality of font usage can be so easily overlooked. It’s almost akin to being told, “The air you’re breathing is copyrighted — do you have the rights to use it?” Uh, this stuff is everywhere, pal. It’s free, right?

There are type houses all over the place these days, doing diligent work crafting some of the most beautiful typefaces ever seen. From powerhouse foundries like Font Bureau, Hoefler & Co, and Adobe, to independent setups like Typotheque and TypeTrust, there are teams of designers spending months — even years — developing fonts that eventually get seen on everything from television to website designs to napkins in the garbage. Naturally, those companies are looking to make a profit from their labor and to protect their intellectual property from illegal use.

License to Font

An essential part of using any particular typeface is paying for the license to do so. It can be strange to think of going to the “fonts” menu of any program you’re using and considering the list of typefaces presented to you as pieces of individual software, but that’s exactly what fonts are. And, like any other kind of software you may own, each font requires the proper license for usage.

What further separates fonts from the way we think of common software is that they do not require an activation key or serial number to install them on any number of computers. Drag them into your “fonts” folder (or your font manager if you’re a geeky designer) and poof — they’re ready to be used. Combine that with the ubiquitous nature of type in the world, and then mix in the fact that fonts are typically small files, easily shared, and it can add up to a legal nightmare.

Yeah, there are font police out there. And they’ve caught some of the biggest players in the world in bad situations. Ask Hasbro, which recently found itself in the thick of a My Little Pony font conundrum.

The Font Brothers type foundry has alleged that Hasbro lacked a license for their typeface “Generation B” (shown at right) for use on My Little Pony marketing materials, filing a lawsuit for $150,000 per infringement.

NBC Universal was sued three different times in the course of a handful of years for illegal use of type on their websites and in show titles. Not even Harry Potter could escape P22 Type Foundry’s $1.5 million lawsuit alleging marketing material for the wizarding movies used an unlicensed typeface. Surely there’s some kind of Font Patronus Charm out there to protect The Boy Who Lived?

Understanding Your License to Font

Licensing for fonts varies by foundry, as if the problem wasn’t confusing enough already. The number of computers licensed to have a font installed varies by font license and by font foundry. And the way you’re permitted to use a font varies per license, too.

The clearest licensing agreement I’ve come across is on the website of Hoefler & Co. It’s in plain English with the Lawyer Filter cranked way up. My favorite bit:

“If the font can be activated so that it appears in your menu, or the font files themselves are stored on your hard drive, your computer needs a license.”

Imagine all the computers in your company, and imagine all the fonts that live on every single one of them. The potential for an expensive mistake is very real.

Don’t Request What Isn’t Yours

Like any full-service advertising agency, Texas Creative has many clients that ask us for templates they can manage and edit in-house. So, the question almost always arises: “Hey, I need these fonts. Will you email them to me, please?” That’s when we place a one-hour order on Amazon Prime Now for Josh Norman’s bestseller, “Our Fonts Aren’t Ours To Send To You.” Unfortunately, it’s still out of stock with no arrival date in sight.

The point is, you wouldn’t have your agency use Photoshop to create a wall graphic for you, send you the document, then call the agency and say, “I don’t have Photoshop — send me your copy so I can use it.” Asking for fonts to be supplied is no different. Fonts require a license for each user, and that’s not something an agency can resell. It has to come from a font retailer or the foundry itself. So, when your agency politely informs you that you’ll need to buy the fonts for your own use, they’re doing you a favor. They’re not being difficult.

Adopt Best Practices from a Company with Lots of Practice

Extensis, a font and digital asset management company, supplies a great (and free) document titled “Font Compliance in Publishing Best Practices Guide” that’s worth checking out. The bottom line: Make sure the fonts you’re using are actually yours to use.


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