Font licensing—Is your brand at risk?

Nov 2, 2021

Know your type

Typography is a crucial component to a brand’s visual identity. Often, brand recognition is based entirely around a specific typeface or type treatment. But whether you are a designer or the steward of a brand, it is important to understand the legalities around using a specific font for your brandmark. Font licensing—Is your brand at risk? will help sort through some of the precautions and options for understanding your brand’s typography.

Selecting the most appropriate typeface to represent a brand is a specialized skill. After all, the type used in a brandmark will elicit a visceral response from everyone who comes in contact with it. That response is a result of the signals a specific typeface sends. Certain typefaces exude luxury while others may be more casual or playful. A good designer will be able to expertly connect the right typeface with a specific brand.

However, before the perfect font from the perfect typeface is selected, there are many legal implications which need to be taken into account. Those implications all revolve around licensing.

Wading through the EULA (End User Licence Agreement)

Design agencies and designers generally agree that the right type is almost always purchased from skilled and reputable type foundries and independent type designers. Cheap fonts and typefaces from free font websites are, almost without exception, a no-no. A designer’s objective when designing a brandmark should always be to create an identity which will differentiate the brand from its competitors. This comes with the aid of unique and ownable type, often paired with a custom designed symbol. When a symbol is not designed as part of a brand identity the typography needs to work extra hard to offer up a distinct, recognizable mark.

Type foundries create retail typefaces which they make available through specific licensing agreements. Each foundry or independent type designer will have their own, very specific licensing options in place. It is the responsibility of the designer and the client to ensure that the correct licence, or licences, are purchased.

Licences are generally organized by the number of computers or users, and by usage. Different licences are normally required for desktop, web and video or broadcast.
Purchasing a desktop licence for example does not normally give a designer permission to use that typeface for a website or video. From a client perspective, even though your designer has purchased a desktop licence in order to produce your print collateral, you may be required to purchase a separate licence in order to use the typeface for your logo, or for digital applications, or for video. Usage can be very specific.

Many desktop licences will allow for a font to be used for a logo, however, some do not, and will require an additional licence. It can not be stressed enough how important it is to purchase the correct licence and to read the EULA.
There are cases, for example, where a desktop licence may allow for a font to be used for a logo, however, if that logo is going to be trademarked, some foundries require an additional licence to be purchased. It can be complicated.

Type foundries are very protective of their intellectual property and a corporation or designer can be held financially liable for breaching the terms of a licensing agreement. Imagine launching a brand, with the mark being used on signage, vehicles and advertising, only to be served with a legal notice from a type foundry stating that there is no record of the appropriate licences having been purchased. In addition, some licences are not granted in perpetuity—meaning the company may be liable for annual renewal fees. Depending on how long the company has been using the typeface, they may also be liable for annual fees to be paid retroactively based on when they began using the font.

Needless to say, taking the necessary precautions and doing the initial research up front can save a lot of potential issues in the future.

So why bother using type foundries?

Like most things, you get what you pay for. Type foundries and independent type designers create beautifully crafted and technically precise type. When designers are looking for just the right letterforms to express a brand’s personality or evoke a specific response, they source type from artists who know their craft. The finely tuned details of beautifully designed type can make all the difference in how a brand is perceived and received.

There are, of course, some exceptions but, even with free fonts, licensing can still be an issue. For example, free font sites may or may not do everything they can to ensure that the fonts they make available are indeed free to use—however, many of the fonts they carry could still have licensing fees associated if the fonts are used commercially rather than for personal projects.

Some free font websites also make it difficult to find the licensing agreements for the fonts they carry. Lastly, there is no way for these sites to know if the fonts they are making available have been created using existing typefaces and are therefore in violation of an existing foundry’s intellectual property. This scenario could also potentially put the end user in legal difficulties.

Another type option which can pose potential issues is using freely available type from within a software application. Software companies licence type from type foundries. Often these licensing agreements are subject to a specific time period. If designers are using one of these typefaces freely through an app as a crucial component of a branding project, and the type foundry does not renew their agreement with the software developer, then anyone using that typeface will now need to purchase a licence directly from the foundry in order to carry on using it.

Using type curated directly from a type foundry or independent type designer is generally the best and safest option.

The good news

The good news is that there are steps and precautions to take, and options to explore when considering using type for a brand mark.

Original type
As mentioned above, consider using well-established type foundries and independent type designers when curating type for branding projects. However, be sure to read, not only the initial up front licensing terms, but the detailed EULA. Go through it very carefully and make sure to purchase the correct licence for each use case. Keep a copy of the EULA. In addition, if there is any ambiguity, contact the foundry directly for clarification and ensure the details of all enquires are kept in an email.

With all that being said, there are many very good type foundries who keep their licensing agreements very simple in order to help designers avoid any potential legal issues.

Custom font design
An excellent option many larger corporations and agencies can consider is commissioning a custom typeface directly from a type foundry. This option gives a client ownership without the potential for future legal entanglements. In addition, a custom typeface is original and unique to the brand owner.

Open Font Licence
One of the best options for designers, when purchasing from a foundry is cost-prohibitive, is to consider SIL Open Font License fonts. These typefaces, many of which are very well designed, are freely available directly from type designers and many are available for download from Google fonts. These typefaces can be used free of any complicated licencing, they may be shared, used commercially and even modified to create new typefaces. The difference between these typefaces and the type available on free font websites, is the quality of the design. The designers who create SIL Open Font License fonts are often talented type designers dedicated to their craft.

Font People
A great option for designers and agencies may be to use the services of a company called Font People. They are a UK-based type foundry with a well-designed portfolio of typefaces, a custom type service and very straight forward licensing. In addition, they offer a managed font service to assist designers, and companies, in sourcing the perfect typeface and securing the correct licenses. They can manage every aspect of type procurement.

Don’t share
One important precaution to take and to understand is that, like any other form of software, type must not be shared. Unless it is an Open Font Licence, or it is explicitly stated in the licencing agreement, assume that it is a violation of the foundry’s intellectual property to share fonts. Generally speaking, every user needs to be in possession of their own appropriate licence or licences.

This is especially important for designers and clients. Designers must inform their clients of their responsibilities and obligations when acquiring and using type. From a client’s perspective, it is important that clients do their own due diligence when it comes to hiring an agency and commissioning a new brand. Clients need to be aware that improper licensing, and failure to procure correct licences for specific uses, could potentially lead to expensive, legal liability issues—not to mention potentially having to recreate expensive collateral material, vehicles, signs and videos. Before a client signs off on final creative, they must be sure their agency or designer has briefed them on the legalities of the type they are proposing for their brand.

The right type

As subtle, and often invisible, as type can be, it should be neither of those where a brand is concerned. The right typeface can be a distinguishing characteristic for any brand. Selecting the perfect typeface for a brand is crucial—but that perfect typeface should not come with hidden, potential liability issues.

Useful links:

Font People

SIL Open Font Licence Wikipedia Page


Strano + Pettigrew Design Associates is an award-winning branding and design agency based in Toronto Canada serving clients nationally and abroad. For new business enquiries contact us at: