Font Compliance: What it is, and what you can do about it
Font compliance shouldn’t be a tricky topic. It deals with ensuring that an individual or organization uses fonts in accordance with each font’s license. You will likely have many fonts from several sources with several licenses.
The key to understanding and navigating font compliance is understanding font licenses. Fortunately, most font licenses have common features we can identify and readily understand. Then placing that understanding together for each font and grasp how that font’s license works.
Why care about Font licensing?
Fonts are licensed software. When you pay money for a font, you are not buying it; it is not yours to use as you please. You are licensing the font, and you can only use them as the license instructs.
While there aren’t font police that will knock on your door if they hear that you’re involved in shady font activity, there have been some very public lawsuits that turned out to be both costly and embarrassing for companies that should know better.
Sometimes we think of compliance as a subset of the license limits, usually adhering to the number of installations that are allowed for the font.
We typically refer to this as the number of seats allowed for a given font. The number of seats available for a font is simply the number of installations allowed by a font’s license multiplied by the number of font licenses you have purchased.
The easiest way to maintain “seat compliance” is to purchase enough font licenses for each and all your users.
A font license can cover a number of uses. Some general ones are:
The number of installations (or users)
Whether the font can be used for commercial purposes
Whether the font can be used as a web font
Whether the font can be transferred to another user for output
Whether the font can be used on packaging
Whether the font can be used in an eBook
Whether the font can be embedded in an application
The prominent use of a single character of the typeface
The ability to modify the original font file
What’s in a license?
A font license is a legally binding document, and so needs to be given the same attention as any contract you sign or license you agree to.
The first question about font licenses that you might ask is, “Where can I find them?”
With downloaded fonts, there should be a license file in the download package. If you have deleted it, go back to the source and re-download the font package. (Most font stores allow you to re-download the fonts you have purchased.)
Google Fonts, on the other hand, distributes open-source fonts under varying licenses. Just as with purchased fonts, the license for an individual Google Font should be included in the package that you download.
Example: The SIL Open Font License
The Open Font License, or OFL, is included with many Google fonts.
At the top of each copy of the license is a copyright for the font’s “reserved name.” This is the main name of the font.
The second paragraph of the Preamble section of the font license spells out part of what you are allowed to do with the font: “The OFL allows the licensed fonts to be used…and redistributed freely…The fonts…can be…embedded…”
This says you can use and embed the fonts freely. The only caveat is that if you modify the font and use or embed your modified version, you must change the Reserved Font Name.
These and other restrictions regarding sales, bundling, and promotion are spelled out in the Permission & Conditions section of the OFL.
So, you can see that the OFL is a pretty unrestrictive license. In the list of typical font uses that we mentioned above, the SIL allows everything:
The number of users: Unlimited
Can be used for commercial purposes: Yes
Can be used as a web font: Yes
Can be transferred for output: Yes
Can be used on packaging: Yes
Can be used in an eBook: Yes
Can be embedded in an application: Yes
Allows the prominent use of a single character: Yes
Can modify the original font file: Yes
About the only thing you can’t do is sell the font or any derivatives you make from it. You can include it in software that you sell, but you can’t sell the font itself.
Example: The Adobe Fonts License
This license covers all fonts you use from the Adobe Fonts collection, available with your Creative Cloud subscription.
Section 1 makes some definitions that are important in understanding font usage. It defines Desktop Fonts, Licensed Fonts, Marketplace Fonts, and Web Fonts. These describe where fonts come from and where they are used.
Sections 3.1 through 3.4 describe what you can and can’t do with the fonts. The Adobe license is about what you’d expect, and allows these uses:
The number of users: One (3.4 E 9)
Can be used for commercial purposes: Yes
Can be used as a web font: No (3.4 E 1), but Yes (3.1 B) - You can’t host the font on your web server, but Adobe makes most of them available as web fonts through their own service.
Can be transferred for output: No (3.4 E 8)
Can be used on packaging: Yes
Can be used in an eBook: No (3.4 E 2) but Yes (3.1 A) - You can use the font in a PDF and embed a subset of it there, but in general an eBook doesn’t offer the protections that Adobe requires (subsetting, protection from discovery)
Can be embedded in an application: No (3.4 E 2)
Allows the prominent use of a single character: No (3.4 E 10)
Can modify the original font file: No (3.4 E 4)
Adobe’s Font Licensing FAQ answers these and other questions about font usage allowed under this license.
Complying with a license
Even though the two licenses reviewed above have very different terms, by identifying those terms you can pretty easily comply with each license. Compliance with some terms can be automated or at least overseen by a separate person (number of users, use as a web font), and some are unlikely to arise, at least without conscious effort that can be readily seen and stopped (modifying the original font, embedding in an application).
Compliance with most terms, however, requires an understanding by the individuals who use the fonts. If your creative team is building a document to be sent out for printing and mass mailing, they cannot send an Adobe font with the output files. (They can send a PDF with a subset of the font embedded, however.)
Complying with a single license can be relatively straightforward: We’re all using Adobe Fonts, so we know what we can and can’t do.
When you have multiple fonts from different vendors and services, however, it can become more difficult to identify which font has which permissions. For this, a font manager can generally help.
Implementing Font Compliance with Connect Fonts
Connect Fonts has several ways to help with font compliancy. In order to ensure users and fonts are in compliance, several restrictions must be meet.
Connect Fonts has tools to help you track compliance issues:
In Connect Fonts, you can create libraries with a select number of licensed fonts, then give select users access to those libraries.
You can ensure this by not assigning more users to a library than the lowest number of font licenses available within that library. You can also ensure that each font in a library has at least as many licenses as the library has members.
Complications may arise when you assign a single font to multiple libraries, and individual users with access to multiple libraries. There is a potential for overlap of fonts and users, but there is also a potential for exceeding the number of font licenses that are potentially in use.
The simple way around this is to acquire as many licenses for a font as there are users in all libraries that use the font.
A more nuanced approach is to eliminate user overlap: count each user only once no matter how many libraries they have access to, then acquire that many licenses to each font.
Font vendors typically suggest purchasing a 10% increase over the number of users to ensure your font seats allow for additional growth (10 users = 11 Font Licenses). Think of all creatives using the fonts internal and external (such as Contactors) to your organization.
Apply tags to fonts that indicate their various use cases, such as “packaging allowed” or “e-book embedding not allowed”. However, it is still up to the individual user to review these tags and to obey their restrictions.
This can also be accomplished by separating the fonts in different libraries labeled as each license allows. For example:
A policy and process for font acquisition
When you buy font licenses, you should know how many you will need. Your purchase policy should reflect that requirement. Depending on whether your team sizes fluctuate, you may choose to buy extra licenses to accommodate anticipated team growth. You should also encode this in your policy.
In order to ensure that policies are followed, and records are maintained, you should specify a font purchase and distribution process. You may choose to allow only one person to make font purchases, and only a select few to install fonts (either at individual workstations or on a font server).
A few ground rules on buying and distributing fonts will help you ensure that only known and licensed fonts are entering your organization’s workflow.
Understand font licenses before you purchase
We gave you a crash course in understanding font licenses here. You should use that knowledge before you purchase a font, so that you are not surprised if you can’t use the font the way you expected to.
It is especially important to know that many foundries will offer web font licensing separate from desktop font licenses. Make sure you are getting the kind of license you’ll need.
The least interesting but arguably the most important part of fonts and font usage is keeping records regarding the purchase and usage of fonts.
In order to ensure that your organization can always comply with font licenses, it is important to keep exact records of font acquisitions.
It is probably a good idea to have both digital and paper records, and that these records are kept synchronized.
For digital records, we suggest that you keep:
The original font download package
The font license (This may need to be extracted from the font package)
The font receipt (This may be included in the font package, sent as an email, or only presented on a web page. If the receipt is presented on the web, save a PDF copy, or a screenshot.)
A written explanation (a simple text file will do) of when the font was acquired, who acquired it, for what purpose, and how it was paid for.
A written description (such as a text file) that specifies the location of the physical records.
For physical records, keep printouts of the above, plus a printed description of the location of the digital records.
When using fonts from a font service such as Adobe Fonts, much of this information will not be available or accessible. While the font license itself is available, the nature of the service is such that subscribers to the service can use any font at any time. The advantage of this particular service is that most uses are allowed and copying fonts between workstations requires devious intent (rather than a simple sharing of files). So while capturing usage information may not be simple, you can circumvent most potential issues by subscribing all potential users to the service.
Streamline your font collection
If your organization has been acquiring fonts for more than a few years, chances are good that you have some overlap, and also that you have some antiques. As much as it might hurt, it is a good idea at some point to go through all fonts on all workstations and get rid of the deadwood, especially ancient Mac-only or Windows-only TrueType or PostScript fonts.
Replace old fonts with modern OpenType versions. While this might cause issues with older documents, it will help ensure that both old documents and new content going forward are compatible with modern applications and technologies.
Consider a quarterly or annual audit of your font usage. Do you have enough licenses for the people using them? Do you have need for uses not covered by some of your licenses? (Adobe notes that if you have needs that aren’t met by the Adobe Fonts licensing terms, you should license the font in question directly from the foundry.)
Get a Partner
While it might be difficult for a misuse of a font license to be detected, there have been several legal cases brought against very public offenders (typically, using a font in a commercial manner that the license forbids).
Hiring a font auditing agency, such as Font Shield can provide services from a one-time audit through providing, implementing, and maintaining font management solutions within your organization.