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Ethics in Advertising, Part 1: Font Usage

By Leigh Farrior

Ethics in Advertising, Part 1: Font Usage

Typefaces and fonts are an important part of what we do in the world of communications. The shape and style of lettering helps convey mood and personality and is critical to conveying the brand promise. Here, we explore how font use is governed and what you should look out for when purchasing fonts or downloading free ones to use in your own materials. Read time: eight minutes

In this series, we’ll discuss laws and rights in relation to advertising elements. Far too many DIY designers, freelancers, social media gurus, and even trained design veterans don’t know the copyright laws surrounding design elements such as typefaces. Stamp's Leigh Farrior is certified in Advertising Ethics by the American Advertising Federation, but please keep in mind that we are marketing professionals, not attorneys. This information is not the same as legal advice. Should you feel you need legal advice, please contact your attorney.

Font Usage

Typefaces and fonts are an important part of what we do in the world of communications. The shape and style of lettering helps convey mood and personality and is critical to conveying the brand promise. Quick fun fact: did you know that what you may have called a font is often actually a typeface? One way to remember this is that a typeface typically contains many fonts, while a font is a typeface in a particular size and weight. This can get confusing because in today’s digital-centric design world, you often see (and will even hear us use) these two terms used interchangeably.

For example, Times New Roman is a typeface. Fonts within that typeface include regular, bold, italic, medium italic, etc., so the files on your computer of that typeface are called fonts. Currently, you have many typefaces that came with the software on your computer, and you may visit websites where you can purchase other fonts or download them free. But have you ever considered the copyright and licensing laws for those typefaces and how you may use them? Wikipedia says it best:

“Typefaces cannot be protected by copyright in the United States (Code of Federal Regulations, Ch 37, Sec. 202.1(e); Eltra Corp. vs. Ringer). The idea that typefaces (rather than fonts, which are computer software) cannot be copyrighted in the United States is black letter law. 37 C.F.R. § 202.1(e). Under U.S. law, typefaces and their letterforms or glyphs are considered utilitarian objects whose public utility outweighs any private interest in protecting their creative elements. However, there is a distinction between a font and a typeface. The machine code used to display a stylized typeface (called a font) is protectable as copyright. In 1992, the US Copyright Office determined that digital outline fonts had elements that could be protected as software.[8] Since that time, the Office has accepted registration of copyright for digital vector fonts, such as PostScript Type 1, TrueType, and OpenType format files."

More simply stated, only font software is protected by copyright—not the artistic design of the typeface. But, since we now live in a world where virtually every design is created using font software (to render a particular version of a typeface), you still must be diligent about proper legal use of fonts to render a typeface.

In today’s wonderful world of sharing online, you can download many beautifully-designed and well-executed fonts and font sets and utilize them to convey the personality of your brand and brand offerings in your marketing materials. However, whether these fonts are free or paid for, be sure to read the associated license for the font files before downloading. Each font set comes with a license that explains how you can and cannot use it (usually in the End User License Agreement [EULA]). And keep in mind, when you are purchasing a particular font, the font owner may also limit how many computers or users can access it.

Beware, most free fonts are for personal use only. And even if you are ONLY going to use that free font for personal use, be extra cautious when accessing free fonts. Make sure they come from a site you can trust and one that contains the rights and licensing information. This is to help ensure you aren’t using a font that was illegally copied and redistributed for free because you could still be liable for using that illegal copy.

Other fonts allow for commercial use. Commercial use can be boiled down into parts and pieces. For instance, one font may be free for personal use, $80 for one computer to use on print collateral, $180 for use in print and online use, and $300 for use in national magazines and/or TV broadcasts. If the license says it is for personal use only and you use it commercially—even if you are a nonprofit—you can be sued by the owner or creator of the font software if you can't prove you have purchased that font.

Downloading a font you paid for most of the time only allows the purchaser to use it. This means, if you are working with another party, you cannot give them that font. For example, when we purchase a typeface font set for use in a branding campaign, we cannot legally give the electronic version of that font to our client that we developed the campaign for—even though our contract states they own the artwork once completed—because the licensing for the font prevents it. It is rare for the license agreement to permit transferring a font to a client, so the client will need to purchase the font to use it in their own materials. One exception for this is printers. Most license agreements allow for you to “collect for output” files for a printer or vendor to produce a final product (if a PDF or outlined fonts file won’t work). That vendor is obligated to use the font software for your project only and then delete it.

There is no gray area in legal font use. So, use reputable sites, read the licensing agreements and follow them, and as a general rule, don’t share font files.