What is a font license?
A font license grants someone the right to use the font, according to the terms contained in the license. Regardless of whether you are a designer or personal user, it is important to check a font’s license before usage. The most fundamental standard to font licensing is that unless specifically allowed by the license, a font cannot be share among multiple computers or persons. This holds, even if the computers are owned by the same person. Contrary to public disregard for fonts, they are legally considered software, and thus subject to intellectual property laws.
Where do I get a font license?
Normally, license agreements will be attached to the font packages you either buy/download. Alternatively, you will also receive a font license from your font vendor (for example, fonts that come in Adobe Suites). Whenever you obtain a font (or download a software like Office that contains fonts), you are legally agreeing to the font’s EULA. Otherwise known as the End-User License Agreement, this document states that if its conditions are broken, the other party has right to claim damages.
Do I need a font license?
Technically yes, although enforcement of licensing requirements are rare depending on the project. For example, personal projects will not require anything beyond a desktop license. This includes personal event invitations, charity promotions, and cards given to family members. On the other hand, paid client projects (ie. commercial projects) will require commercial licenses. Examples of what’s considered “commercial” include fonts used in: logos, books, greeting cards sold, income-generating blog, t-shirts. Be aware that just because a font is labeled “free download”, does not always mean it can be used commercially for free.
What types of licenses are there?
1) Desktop licenses. The most standard license out there, basically allowing you to use the font on your computer, and design something to print. Generally, the fonts you see in Microsoft Office are examples of desktop-licensed fonts. Note: also known as a print license.
2) Open-Source licenses. Pertains to fonts that are free to obtain/use/share. However, it cannot be modified or distributed by the user, nor can it be sold. In addition, proper credit must be given to the font author.
3) Commercial licenses. Pertains to fonts used to generate profit, and often require some payment to the font creator.
How strong is font law enforcement?
Not strong at all! Under the legal system, the trademark, design patents, and copyright systems are able to offer protection to fonts. However, even the most applicable system, Copyrights, still experiences significantly weak enforcement of font licensing. This is largely due to (1) the vagueness of font laws and (2) the difficulty to enforce. For instance, under US copyright law, there is no explicit protection offered to fonts.
While you are unlikely to be ever prosecuted for illegal use of a font, the font creator may notice and take legal action. Both from a legal and ethical perspective, it is important to respect the font licensing process.