Myths & Facts: Can I Use This Font for My Business?
Yesterday I reviewed some common myths about the types of images you can use for your business with a focus on copyright and commercial licenses. Today, I'm going to cover fonts and design elements. Design elements include things like graphics and illustrations. In my experience, the use of all of these items seems to cause confusion even for clients who understand copyright issues pertaining to image use.
As I mentioned yesterday, copyright law protects original, tangible works of authorship. Fonts, graphics, illustrations - all of these fall into this category. Interestingly, a font is only copyrighted if it qualifies as software; if you're using a font installed on your computer, it is generally software. What we usually call a font is actually a typeface (which is not copyrighted); however, the software that allows your computer to render that typeface and send it to your printer is copyrighted. Confusing, but important!
Can I Use This Font for My Business?
Myth 1: I can use any font I want on my website and in my marketing materials.
Technically, this is not a myth. You certainly can use any font you want! But you will first need to license that font and ensure that the license allows you to use it the way you'd like.
If you want access to free fonts that you can be assured are licensed for whatever use you'd like, look no further than Google Fonts. All of the fonts in this extensive online collection (currently over 800 font families!) are free and open source; Google Fonts takes care of all the licensing and hosting. You can use these fonts on your website or in print materials.
Several online design content marketplaces also offer free fonts, either generally available for download or as weekly offers for subscribers. Many of these free fonts offer extended licenses, meaning you can use them for some type of commercial purpose (either on marketing materials, websites, merchandise, and/or on behalf of clients). A few of my favorite resources are Creative Market, Font Bundles, and The Hungry JPEG. Please note that each of these sites has different usage restrictions for their free fonts, so you should carefully read the license each time! I should also mention that there are other sites where you can find "free" fonts, but many of them don't guarantee that they are licensed for all types of use.
When it comes to paying to license fonts, you can do so at the sites listed above, as well as from various foundries or online stores. I have accounts with MyFonts and Fonts.com; I also use Typekit as part of my Creative Cloud license. Like images, whether your fonts are free or licensed, you must still be aware of restrictions on use.
Myth 2: If I paid to license a font, I can share it with friends/colleagues/clients.
Not so fast, my generous friend. In general, font licenses are limited to the person who downloaded the font or a limited number of users. But what if you need a specific font for a project you're designing for a client? A good rule of thumb is to license the font under the client's name and make sure you use it solely for their projects once it's downloaded to your computer. If the client would like to download the font to use on projects they design or create on their own, then they need to purchase a license. You cannot share, sell, or transfer a font license unless the license language explicitly allows you to do so (which I have never seen, but may well exist).
Myth 3: Once I've licensed or downloaded a free font, I can use it however I like!
Nope! There are various types of font licenses, ranging from personal use to commercial use to platform use. Platform use restricts the medium on which you can use the font, such as on a desktop computer, website, merchandise, mobile app, ebooks, or on a web server. You should carefully read the license definition on the site from which you license or download a font, though. Similarly to image licenses, there may be limits on the number of projects or products you can create with the font and licensing language can vary from site to site. If a font has a personal use license, you may safely assume that you cannot use it in a way that results in monetary gain - so you cannot use it to promote your business, create merchandise, or design a client project. And it bears repeating: you cannot resell or otherwise offer a license to a font you've licensed or downloaded for free, as the font itself is not yours to distribute.
Myth 4: I found these super cute free graphics and patterns. Since they were free, I can use them on my website and marketing materials!
Let's think back to what we've learned about image and font licenses. Does it make sense that graphics (or illustrations, clip art, patterns, etc.) would also have licenses? Yes! Creators license their work; even if graphics are part of a free download, you should always read the license to see how you can use it. If what you downloaded is only for personal use, then you cannot use it for your business. Sometimes you may find an option to purchase a license for commercial use for freebies; if not, you can always contact the creator to see if you can come to an agreement about purchasing such a license!
Much of what I've reviewed today is similar to what I wrote about images yesterday. As I stated previously, images, fonts, and other design elements are all copyrighted works. If you keep that in mind, you'll be able to move forward with confidence: you'll understand that all of these are licensed, not purchased; you'll know that you'll need specific language in the license to use these works for your business, whether the license was paid or free; and you'll use licensed items appropriately based on permitted uses outlined in the license.
P.S. If you've read this far, here's a little treat for you: a free font bundle of 25 fonts from The Hungry JPEG, with the Complete License which allows personal and commercial use! (I know you'll read the license, right?)