Everything you want to know about using fonts legally (but didn’t know to ask)

The right typeface can make a logo, graphic, or other design really sing.

However, for something we use every single day, most of us know little about the legal ramifications of using typefaces and fonts.

First, please know that I am not a lawyer and don’t even play one on TV.

Second, I will not be using the words “font” and “typeface” interchangeably.  Strictly speaking, a font is a computer file, software, or program that instructs your computer to display and print each letter, character, and so forth.

A typeface, on the other hand, is a set of letters, numbers, and often symbols that share a consistent design look.  Typefaces, strictly speaking, have nothing to do with computer use.

So, Times is a typeface first and foremost.  Its font complement allows Times to be used digitally.

Let’s talk about fonts first, because that’s where most of the issues are.

How can you use fonts you own?

Lots of people don’t have a clue that they aren’t allowed to use fonts — even the ones they purchase — for any use they can possibly dream up.

Savvy designers know otherwise.  We try to let our clients know what we know, because using typefaces and fonts can involve money and licensing issues.

Most of us are familiar with the fonts that come with our word processing software (e.g., Microsoft Word).  Fonts that come bundled with software (e.g., operating system and Microsoft Office) are usually licensed for use with that software.  So if you print out a book using Microsoft Word (although why would you?), you’re probably safe.

If you plan to create a .pdf of your Microsoft Word book so that you can upload it to CreateSpace, Lulu, or another print-on-demand vendor, you’re licensed to do so.

However, if you’re creating an e-book for, say, the Kindle, you can’t embed the Microsoft Word font you used to write your drafts.  You’ll need to license a font or consider using the fonts provided by the e-book manufacturer — ePUB, iBook, Kindle, and so forth.

The entire issue of digital publishing is a hot potato right now with the dramatic rise in self-publishing over the past decade or so.  Certainly there are serious font issues with the software that claims to convert .pdfs to e-books.

One silver lining is that a subscription to Adobe’s Creative Cloud (about $50 a month for a one-user subscription) yields you several hundred fonts that are licensed for ePUBs.  With a million subscribers to date, the Creative Cloud’s font licensing includes print, online, and e-books.

Why buy a font?

If you’re not part of the Creative Cloud, you’ll need to consider purchasing a font or more at some point.

Purchasing a commercial font entitles you to specific font uses, often including commercial.  But each manufacturer’s font license is different.  You really do need to read the End User License Agreement (EULA) for each typeface you purchase.

Typically, a designer buys a font license for a specific project, such as a client’s brochure.  The license may restrict the use of the font.  It’s possible your designer can use it on as many projects as they like, but can’t send you the font for you to use in related projects.  Therefore, many designers include the price of the font in the design price if it needs to be specific to match your house identity, or style, guide.

Some typical licensing restrictions include the number of computers on which the font may be installed, whether the font may be uploaded to a server to use on a website, or whether it may be included in a mobile app package.

U.S. copyright law protects fonts, not typefaces

Copyright law in the United States, unlike in many other countries, doesn’t protect typefaces per se.  (Again, not a lawyer so this is not legal advice.)  However, scalable fonts may be protected as software and software programs.

When copyrighted, only the font software is protected, not the artistic design of the typeface.  In other words, only the software version (font) of a typeface is protected.

(This seems inconsistent with copyright law as it pertains to other creative works — life of the creator plus 75 years of protection before releasing the works into the public domain; this is an oversimplification, because there are cases in which copyright can be renewed. Be that as it may, it’s the law, so unless you’re a lawyer it’s all clear as mud.)

However, a designer can legally trace over a typeface (such as from a book or drawing) and use the resulting artwork as his or her original design.  OR she can scan each character of a typeface and rework it — without fear of retribution — as long as the original from which the designer worked was not a font.

What if you trace a typeface (not a font) that’s copyright-protected by another country?  Even though the United States is a party to the Bern Convention and other international agreements, the United States isn’t required to provide greater protection to works from other countries than it provides to works created in this country.

Do companies protect their logo designs?

Many companies protect their logo designs from infringement.  Some executions of type design (e.g., Coca-Cola’s) are copyrighted as a logo design.

Typeface designs can be patented but this is unusual.  And trademarks only protect a typeface’s name (e.g., Gill Sans), not its actual design.

Should you use free fonts?

Sure. If they work for you, use them. But note that each font comes with its own EULA.  Some free fonts allow unrestricted use, and others prohibit use of the font for certain commercial purposes, such as the creation of e-books or Facebook images.

Just make sure you know what you’re dealing with.

Also, free fonts may present conflicts (i.e., they just don’t work).  Some don’t have upper and lower case letters or a palette of symbols.  Others are corrupt or carry a Trojan virus.

Here are two reputable sources to get some font goodness.  The Google fonts are available for free and can be used commercially.  Also, Font Squirrel is a curated list of free fonts that come with a commercial license.

Should you give a font to your client?

Usually the answer is no.  If you plan to own the typeface used for a client’s project, for instance, you are able to give the client the final artwork (like a print-ready .pdf) but not the font itself.  If the client wants to be able to use the font you have selected, he or she will need to purchase a license.

How much do fonts cost?

Fonts may run anywhere from a few dollars to hundreds of dollars or more.  Fun Fact: In 2015 Odd Moxie spent about $500 on font licenses, and that was a light year!

In many cases, a single font may include just the regular type, not the bold and italic, heavy and light versions.  You may need to purchase half a dozen fonts to have a complete digital representation of the typeface. For example, Gotham—beloved by designers everywhere—can be purchased from Hoefler & Co in a package with all the various styles for about $300.  Check it out here: Gotham Typeface.


You may say, all of this information is well and good, but I’ll keep using fonts the way I always have — for any purpose, without regard to licensing.

Certainly fonts are one of the Internet’s most-abused pieces of software, easily copied and transferred.

However, we never know when and where a law will suddenly be enforced.  So you may want to stay on the right side of it.

Plus, it just makes you a good human.  Somewhere a designer sat at a desk and labored for months on perfecting that font.  Need a name?  Here’s a list of the 1500ish top font designers according to Linotype (a famous name in typeface history).  These people worked hard on fonts you love and they deserve to be compensated for their work!

Ultimately, if you feel at all stymied by font and typeface law, it might be a signal to find a great designer! Odd Moxie is our top choice — ever heard of this dynamic company?


Glossary of common licensing terms

  • EULA = End User License Agreement
  • OFL = Only Foreign License
  • GPL = General Purpose License
  • SIL = Single Instance License

Additional reading

What is a font license and do I need one? 

A brief summary of font licensing 

Where can I legally use my fonts?

The law on fonts and typefaces

Are MS Fonts Free to Use?