A simple introduction to Font Licensing

Every time we want to type a letter or some other document in Word or another word processor, we either use the default font or choose another one from the drop-down list at the top of the page. In this article, IT specialist Marcus O’Leary looks at what it is we are choosing, what exactly is a “font” and shares some top tips to ensure you stay safe when using them.

In fact, it is very easy to confuse typefaces with fonts. A typeface is a collection of letters, numbers, punctuation marks, symbols and the like, all of which have a common and distinctive design. This is what you see on the screen of your computer/mobile device or in written material like a magazine or advertisement. So what we are really choosing when we are typing a letter in a word processor is the typeface that we want to use.

A font, on the other hand, is what is used to create the typeface. Once upon a time, a font would have been the lead alloy or wooden block used to create each of the characters, but today fonts exist as small software programs that create and display typefaces.

Certain ramifications flow from this. As software programs, fonts are protected by copyright and so using a font without permission is an infringement of the owner’s copyright in it. Permission to use a font is usually granted, like with other software programs, by way of a licence. So when you buy a font, you are actually buying a licence to use the font software – and the font has to be used in accordance with the terms of that licence.

But beware! Although there are common principles running through such licences, their terms are not standardised, so it is important to carefully read the terms of the licence relevant to the font you want to use.

How do fonts installed on computers fit into this licensing scheme?

The computer operating system, whether it be Microsoft Windows or Apple’s OS X, comes with some pre-loaded font software (called ‘system fonts’) that Windows or OS X uses to display text in menus, title bars, dialog boxes and the like. You will be very familiar with many of these which include Arial, Courier, Times New Roman and Verdana.

Software applications (such as Word) also come bundled with fonts. If you go to you can see which fonts are bundled with which Microsoft products. You can also select a font family name (such as “Calibri”) and find out more information about that particular font.

As far as licensing is concerned, the general rule for such fonts is that they are licensed for the same number of users as the software they came with. So if you purchased a licence to use Microsoft Word on one computer, then you can only use the fonts that came with that program on that same computer.

Microsoft:You might find it interesting to have a look at the FAQs on the left-hand side of Microsoft’s typography page ( and, in particular, FAQ 11 which asks, “What can I do with the fonts supplied with Microsoft products?” The answer given is: “The fonts are governed by the same restrictions as the products they are supplied with. You are not allowed to copy, redistribute or reverse engineer the font files. For full details see the license agreement supplied with the product. Some fonts may be embedded within document files. Embedding allows fonts to travel with documents. Embedded fonts can only be used to print, preview and in some cases edit the document in which they are embedded. Please see the Embedding TrueType page and the TrueType font embedding FAQ for details.”

Apple: It is also interesting to examine the font licensing information given in the licence for Apple’s OS X “Mountain Lion” operating system. (This can be found at

Clause 1A (“General”) says:

“The Apple software … documentation, interfaces, content, fonts and any data accompanying this License … (collectively the “Apple Software”) are licensed, not sold, to you by Apple Inc. … for use only under the terms of this License.”

Clause 2E (“Fonts”) says:

“Subject to the terms and conditions of this License, you may use the fonts included with the Apple Software to display and print content while running the Apple Software; however, you may only embed fonts in content if that is permitted by the embedding restrictions accompanying the font in question. These embedding restrictions can be found in the Font Book/Preview/Show Font Info panel.”

(Apple’s Font Book application lets you manage the fonts on your computer. If you have a Mac, look in your “Applications” folder.)

What is Embedding?

“Embedding” is an important principle in relation to fonts and there are four levels of embedding “permissions”:

(i) “No Embedding”: Fonts that have the “no embedding” restriction are not allowed to be embedded in any electronic document;

(ii) “Preview and print”: A font with this embedding permission can be embedded in an electronic document but solely for the purpose of viewing that document on screen and/or printing that document;

(iii) “Editable”: Fonts that have this embedding permission can be embedded in electronic documents, and the embedded font can then be used by the recipient of the electronic document to view, print and further edit or modify the text and structure of the document in which it is embedded. These changes or edits can then be saved in the original document; and

(iv)“Installable”: Fonts with this embedding permission may be embedded in electronic documents for viewing, printing and editing, with the added capability that they may be also be permanently installed on the computer that receives the electronic document containing the embedded font. This allows the font to be used to create and author new documents.

Viewing and creating web pages

Web designers have typically used what are called “web-safe” fonts, which are the small set of fonts likely to be present on both Microsoft and Apple computers, which would then ensure (as far as possible) that the content they created was displayed in their chosen font. If, however, that font was not present on the viewer’s computer, then the viewer’s browser would try to select a similar alternative – but the viewing experience for the viewer may be very different to that intended by the designer. (The operating system licence covers web-safe fonts.)

Web designers who wanted to introduce some individuality into their web pages would instead create raster images (a “PNG” file for example) of the words or banner that they required. However, this was not ideal, not least because the words in the image would not be picked up by Google searches. (The “preview and print” embedding permission covers image files.)

CSS @font face

The “CSS @font-face” rule was created in 1998 and this has since been adopted by all major browsers in the last few years. The major difference this makes is that when a web designer specifies a particular font using “@font-face”, those fonts do not need to be installed on the viewer’s computer; instead, the web browser temporarily downloads the fonts and uses them to display text.

The licensing of these new web fonts is fundamentally different from the licensing of desktop fonts and the font file can reside on your own or a hosted server or even on the font publisher’s server. Licensing is based on average monthly page views.

See for example the “MyFonts” website at and the FontFont EULA at

Adobe has a different system and its current end-user licence agreement does not permit font linking with “@font-face”. Adobe provides select Adobe web fonts for use on the web through its Typekit web font service, a subscription-based font service which allows website designers to have access to a library of fonts from Adobe (and other font publishers/foundries) that they can use on just about any web site. (Web font usage is governed by the Typekit service Terms of Use.)

Golden rules to keep you safe when using fonts

We’ve looked at the key issues above but, of course, there is a huge amount of complexity hidden just below the surface. Below are some “golden rules” which should keep you safe. (With thanks to Allan Haley, Director of Words and Letters at Monotype Imaging.)

1. Font software is licensed, not purchased. You license font software from the font designer or font foundry that supplies it.

2. The licence sets out exactly how you may use the font software and so it needs to be read very carefully as font licences vary from publisher to publisher.

3. Most font software licences do not allow you to copy or distribute font software to companies or persons who do not also have a licence to use it. So you cannot let your advertising agency or your PR company use your fonts unless they themselves have a licence to use those fonts.

4. Most font licences allow users to embed font software into documents, but only for previewing and printing. In many cases a licence upgrade will be needed.

5. Most font software publishers will allow users to create static images from font software (such as a PNG file used as a web banner). Again a licence upgrade may be needed.

6. Most font software publishers will not allow their software to be modified in any way without permission – which may involve a separate licence.

7. Your company will be liable if you lend or give font software to others to use without a licence or if you use fonts outside of the terms of the licence.

This article is for general information purposes only and does not constitute legal or professional advice. It should not be used as a substitute for legal advice relating to your particular circumstances. Please note that the law may have changed since the date of this article.

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