When Free Fonts Aren’t Free
June 11, 2009
As designers start experimenting with CSS web fonts, the prospects look exciting. We’ve already seen folks grab a few free fonts and start experimenting, with great results. Those initial forays have inspired lots of posts that outline the technical and qualitative limitations of some free fonts, but not a lot of information on the legal limitations.
The Typekit team has been running experiments with web fonts, so we’ve spent a few days reading through End User License Agreements (EULAs), and we’ve been surprised at how inconsistent they are. In fact, they’re all over the map. The main thing we’ve discovered is that free isn’t always free — there are often all kinds of restrictions on what you may and may not do with “free fonts.”
Why You Should Care
There are lots of sites that distribute fonts for free, but free can mean a lot of different things. Many of these font distributors don’t distinguish between all the different ways you may use a font. But you should.
If you want to avoid the potential for trouble for youself, your employer, or a paying client, it’s worth finding a non-dubious option. What’s more, creating a font is hugely time consuming. It’s a generous act to turn all that work over for free, and it’s only reasonable to show respect for that generosity by honoring the wishes of the designers who created the work.
To ensure that you’re using fonts as their creators intended, here are four things to look for when you’re scanning a EULA:
1. Embedding and/or Web Linking Restrictions
After reviewing fonts from websites that explicitly offer free fonts for web use, we have found contradictory stipulations in some EULAs. Many EULAs directly state that you may not embed or use them for web linking. In these instances, it’s possible that the designer gave the font distribution sites permission to use their fonts and distribute them freely, but the supporting documentation on them is clear — no use online.
It is also pretty easy to find provisions that prohibit distribution of any kind, which begs the questions: Was it cool for you to get this font from the site you did, or are they in violation, too? And if you use it for CSS font linking, is it considered further distribution?
2. Commercial Use Clauses
Another stipulation you’ll see often is that the free fonts are for personal use only. To our reading, that means no professional or commercial sites.
3. Link Requirements
The designers of these free fonts often, rightly, want credit for their work. Many EULAs require a credit and/or a link to the designer’s information. On occasion it’s acceptable to drop that text and link into your CSS code, but most often the requirement is a notice on every page where you use the font.
Also, we’ve read a few provisions insisting that, when a font is transferred, it “include all copyright and trademark notices, electronic documentation, etc”. Including dozens of paragraphs of legal text in your markup for each font you choose isn’t going to be realistic. Clearly these licenses haven’t been designed with the web in mind.
4. Missing Licenses
Several free fonts simply have no supporting documentation. In using these fonts online, you’re assuming that the person distributing the font lined up permission to use them. But realistically? You have no idea about the font owner’s licensing intentions. It’s a roll of the dice.
The good news is, most free fonts were made free by designers or corporations that have no interest in protecting them any more. Most of them.
If a font that catches your eye doesn’t permit use online, or if you aren’t willing to jump through the hoops to satisfy the legal requirements of the accompanying documentation, consider finding another option.
As an industry, we’re wrestling with font licensing issues. Here at Typekit, we’re working to provide a single, web-specific EULA for all the fonts we host. And, as long as we had to slog through all these EULAs, the least we could do is share some of our observations.