When Free Fonts Aren’t Free

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.

Playing Fair

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.

Happy hunting.

23 Responses

  1. Typegirl says:

    I’ll be curious to see which foundries agree to your EULA. In my experience you’ll never get foundries to agree to one EULA. The EULA is, in many ways, representative of how much a foundry thinks their fonts are worth.

  2. Matt Andrews says:

    And of course, if you’re in that difficult position of finding a wonderful font you want to use, but discover the license won’t allow it – try the handy WhatTheFont tool (http://new.myfonts.com/WhatTheFont/) and find a similar freebie version for your webpages. Simple.

  3. Matt Thomas says:

    I have to say it’s kind of reassuring to hear the exact problems we’ve been dealing with for years, expressed so cogently by someone who’s doing something about it. 🙂

  4. wil says:

    Yeah, Matt, it’s simple – if quality is of no concern. But then again, why not use verdana & arial?

  5. Matt Andrews says:

    Well, true. But free doesn’t always mean poor quality – it’s worth a look, before resorting to the ol’ favourites of Verdana, Arial and Georgia once more.

  6. Damien Pollet says:

    There is the same problem with the licenses for the general king of software programs : (L)GPL, BSD, MIT, Apache, all the derivatives and all the proprietary licenses. Too many different licenses are really cumbersome to exchange code and fixes between projects (unfortunately that probably does not apply for fonts, but for general software it’s a good argument for simplifying the EULA set). I think the Creative Commons project has helped set up a “brand” of licenses that people understand (or at least recognize).

    It’s really better if there is only a limited set of EULAs with clear differences. For free fonts, there is OFL, and probably the CC family provides most of the variants needed for fonts, since it was designed so that it’s adapted to works that are of a more artistic nature (rather than technical).

  7. Aaron Toth says:

    I’ve been a big fan of Knuth’s Computer Modern fontset. It’s free (as in freedom), but it’s also very complete (and looks great).

    The unicode versions are here: http://canopus.iacp.dvo.ru/~panov/cm-unicode/, and I’ve used them on my website for the header.

    Another good and complete set of free as in freedom fonts is the DejaVu set (a modification of Bitstream Vera), available here: http://dejavu-fonts.org/wiki/index.php?title=Main_Page

  8. W.D. says:

    “As an industry, we’re…”

    “WE?” When you launch your product, then maybe you get to use “we.” Maybe.

  9. W.D.:

    WE are all in this together: type designers, browser makers, web designers, everyone. And the only way these problems will get better is by all of us having conversations like this and working on the problems as a community. Throwing up walls is what led us down our current path, and I think we can all agree that we are capable of, and deserve better.

  10. Nate says:

    I still think the foundries need to get their act together. In these times, thinking your font won’t be used on the internet, somewhere, just seems silly.

  11. W.D.:

    We you use your real name linked to a real website then maybe you get to be taken seriously. Maybe.

  12. Martin says:

    I hope this effort works. The web desperately needs to get out of the “Any typeface as long as it’s Arial era. Good luck

  13. John Daggett says:

    One thing to note here is that the font should contain license data, which you can view in FontBook under Mac OS X or via the Font Properties extension on Windows. So some of those free fonts with missing license data may have more info in the font itself.

    Commercial vs. non-commercial distinctions are often hard to puzzle out in these EULA’s. I get that sense they were oriented to separating out those using a font for printing their own documents from those using a font for printing a publication.

  14. I’d love to see some standardization and simplification in EULAs. Having collected hundreds of fonts over the years (thousands if you include weight variations) via software, direct purchase or free download–scanning EULAs is always a pain.

    I’ve never worried about improper use for print projects. Either I used fonts that shipped with Adobe or Corel, or I’d purchase fonts (usually MyFonts.com). Most freebies were unsuitable (kerning/lack of glyphs/etc.). But in recent years, the quality and quantity of free fonts has exploded.

    Now I have a font library called “web embed”. This is where I put fonts with EULAs that allow use with Cufon or @fontface. (Fontin and Anivers are 2). Bottom line, if I see an offering of free fonts, I quickly scan the EULA for commercial and web notations. If it’s for personal use only, I pass. If it’s vague about web use, it better be a damn good font–but I download it to style library, not web-embed.

    It’s not a fool-proof system by any means. But until some sort of standardization, inclusion and simplification of EULAs evolve, it’s the best I can do. I don’t want to short change font designers and I sure don’t want a lawsuit.

  15. Frank Jonen says:

    These days an EULA is often an indicator of when a foundry will go out of business.
    They load their EULAs up with so much indefensible restrictions that at some point you automatically violate the agreement. So either they spend their entire bottom line on frivolous law suits or they try to arrive at least in 2007 maybe.

    I use every font I purchase in good faith, IF the foundry lets me purchase it, Font Bureau for example thinks that you’re not good enough for some of their better fonts and won’t sell them to you. Which encourages piracy. Probably works for them marketing wise to not make money because of those restrictions. I have no idea. Could also simply be raging stupidity. Who knows.

    Also if you have something in your EULA that restricts my use to 200px tall, you dear foundry, can suck it!

  16. Tiffany says:

    Frank, that is your choice. You can choose who to use and who not to use. But with all due respect, the EULA is not an indicator of when a foundry will go out of business. What the EULA does indicate is the business model of a given foundry and how they view their product. As designers we’re lucky in that there are so many fonts available at so many foundries with different EULAs. So, we can choose which foundry to use. It isn’t like there is only one perfect font for every project.

  17. Tiffany says:

    Catherine, I would love to see your lists. Is that something you would share off-list?

  18. No problem, Tiffany! I use FontAgent Pro and keep my font types in libraries (some crossovers) and create sets for clients–which I activate/deactivate per project.

    Here’s my library list:
    Cyborg (never have used anything here 😉
    Foreign Language
    Script Casual
    Script Formal
    Script Grunge
    Square Serif
    Unlikely to Use (the equivalent of an attic!)
    Web Embed*

    *This started small, but is now 180 faces…I may need to subdivide!

  19. Tiffany says:

    Thank you, Catherine. Actually it is the fonts you have listed under web embed. typegirl (at) gmail (dot) com. Thanks, again.

  20. Frank Jonen says:

    @Tiffany You’ll see 🙂 just wait 5 to 8 years and look at the market again.

  21. Ethan Dunham says:

    In my experience, many of these free font designers just don’t put effort into thinking about the implications of their licenses. I can’t tell you how many decent free fonts are “personal use only” and to use them commercially you have to contact the guy and work out some deal?! Who does that? And there is a pretty large swath of free fonts that have no licenses at all. Not even embedded in the font. That is often because they are old (early 90s) or because the designer doesn’t realize that a font NEEDS a license for conscientious end-users to actually decide to use it.

    Our guiding philosphy has been: If the font is old, ubiquitous and unlicensed… treat it like public domain (yes I know). If the font is new and unlicensed, beg the designer to make some statement about it’s use.

    Another BIG problem I’ve had: designers update and change their licensing terms over time. We’ve had to drop fonts from our archive because the designer wanted to start selling them, and another changed from commercial-use to personal-only.

    Font Squirrel definitely takes some liberty in interpreting licenses when it comes to @font-face. It is a new tehnology and unique in the problems it creates and is rarely included in the EULA.

    Anyway, I agree. Font EULAs are a mess.

  22. Ethan Dunham says:

    Wow, that’s funny, I didn’t realize how old this article was. *blush*

  23. Родион says:

    Действительно, как говорится – Без пользы жить – безвременная смерть.

Comments are closed.

Bryan Mason

Bryan Mason is a Sr Director for Creative Cloud at Adobe, focusing on business development and M&A. He was President and a co-founder of Typekit — a design tool for using sophisticated typography on the web — which was acquired by Adobe in 2011.

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