Debunking 5 Foolish Font And Creative Asset Licensing Myths

Font and creative asset licensing myths can seduce even the most sensible of creative teams.

That’s because when we humans don’t understand something…well, if it’s complicated, we tend to oversimplify it…and/or ignore it.

Or fill we fill in the blanks using our own “logic.”

Or take someone else’s word for it, without questioning their expertise.

All of which makes us as susceptible to myths as we are to Ryan Gosling’s ravishing good looks and charm.

That’s right, whether made up in your noggin, or handed down from your beloved team members, you ain’t got enough time nor money to pay for any End User License Agreement (EULA) drama! We’re gonna debunk five foolish font and creative asset licensing myths once and for all and transform you into the best font and creative asset licensing critical-thinker ever!

Here’s what we’ll demystify:

  1. Licensing Myth: If you don’t get the right license before a campaign goes live, you can just pay later.
  2. Licensing Myth: Bigger companies don’t have to worry about font lawsuits.
  3. Licensing Myth: As long as you don’t make mistakes, you won’t have to deal with licensing enforcement.
  4. Licensing Myth: Since fonts are software, they won’t let you violate terms.
  5. Licensing Myth: Choosing a free font eliminates risk.
  6. Bonus Licensing Myth: Font designers and foundries overcharge for fonts so it’s okay to cut corners on licenses.

Myth #1: If you don’t get the right license before a campaign launch,  you can just pay later.

Reality: Sometimes, if a project goes live with creative asset licensing errors, the nice type foundry or stock imagery provider will send you a straightforward bill outlining the corrections needed to make everything right—including rectifying any underpaid licensing costs.

However, when it comes to licensing costs, the bill that arrives for underpayments can be massive. Different licenses cover very different things. For example, let’s say you have a desktop license for a fun font and you’re thinking, “Oh man, I guess we’ll have to pay an extra $20 since we will use this font across social, television ads, and packaging…no big deal.” Yet you could be grossly mistaken. Different licenses for different uses can be substantially more expensive. But the buck doesn’t stop there:

Another potential complication is that depending on the extent of uses across the campaign (different forms of media, international vs domestic, etc.), the bill to rectify underpayment may include cost differences plus damages. In other words, mishandling someone’s font is mishandling someone’s intellectual property—which means you could face a potential legal dispute, which rarely end affordably.  

It’s pragmatic to verify font license compliance before a project goes live, but it’s sheer genius to verify font license compliance across every stage of creative operations for these reasons:

  • If your team’s font manager doesn’t distinguish between different font versions, collaboration can lead to inconsistent font use (thought it may not be visible to the naked eye), and that increases font licensing risk (as well as other font usage risks).
  • The details and scope of creative projects often shift mid-production, so more robust licensing might be required to meet new (but unplanned, and unbudgeted) font usage needs.
  • Speaking of which, if a font’s license cost exceeds the allocated budget at the end of a project, this can mean costly time is spent finding a cheaper alternative and substituting it across all deliverables. Ideally, your creative asset and font manager will empower you to check for licensing issues throughout your entire creative operations cycle.

Myth #2: Bigger companies don’t have to worry about font lawsuits.

Reality: With dispersed teams, intricate processes, and multiple rounds of approval, you’d think big brands have licensing compliance in the bag. But honestly, the more hands touch that shared spreadsheet, the higher the risk. Having a process is great, but processes in large organizations don’t necessarily protect against font misuse. And while foundries will most likely reach out cordially to resolve issues, big companies mean big campaigns, even bigger creative projects, and (potentially) MASSIVE payouts over font usage mistakes. Plus, once a font is out in the wild (print, online ads, packaging), it’s not as simple as switching it out or grabbing another license — so even the bill for making things right can be blindsiding.

See for yourself…NBC Universal, Nike, Haribo, and Target have all been involved in costly font licensing lawsuits.

Myth #3: As long as you don’t make mistakes, you won’t have to deal with licensing enforcement.

Reality: While a creative asset licensing issue is most likely caused by human error, there are also times when you need to show you got all the legal stuff right.

Case in point: some stock image companies launch swarms of bots to find where their images are being used online so they can enforce compliance. Renowned photographer Carol Highsmith previously donated a vast collection of her photos to the Library of Congress for free public use. (We just want to take a moment to say that this is just, like, the nicest thing a person could do with their work—go, Carol!—which is what makes the next part so infuriating…)

A few years later, one of those bot-launching stock image companies tried to fine her for using her own images on her own website, after they’d scooped up the rights. She took them to court, and the case was eventually dismissed. This just goes to show that those enforcing licensing requirements can make mistakes too. By proactively managing your creative asset licenses, you can refute false claims and fines.

Myth #4: Since fonts are software, they won’t let you violate terms.

Reality: Those of you who have been in the trenches for a while learned this is fantasy long ago, but the myth prevails.

The problem is that even though you know that fonts can’t enforce their terms of use like other types of software, many junior designers don’t know this at all. They’re accustomed to digital tools with built-in guardrails that limit what they can do, so it never occurs to them that they could unintentionally commit major licensing violations. Fonts’ complete lack of built-in guardrails means the work junior designers do for a company can create a MAJOR liability for the entire enterprise. Oof.

Ever wonder why that is? Font licensing expert Joyce Ketterer explained to us in this interview that the entire foundation of font software relies upon this open flexibility. Don’t expect that change anytime soon.

Myth #5: Choosing a free font eliminates risk.

Reality: There are some good free fonts out there, and for people looking to try new things, free fonts make experimentation affordable. Often times, a free font means there’s no license needed. However, many free fonts are not always created with attention to detail because they’re frequently amateur side projects or incomplete/abandoned projects. This can lead to performance issues with the fonts in design applications.

The real trouble is that some free fonts are in fact illegal copies of legitimate fonts. Using these fonts moves the designer into an ambiguous legal gray area. After all, if a font is entirely the same, from serif swoosh to leading, the font in use is irrefutably the intellectual property of its creator, who can demand compensation.

Another risk of free fonts is that of malware accompanying the file download. If you do choose to use free fonts, make sure that you’re sourcing them carefully.

Myth #6 (Bonus!): Font designers and foundries overcharge for fonts so it’s okay to cut corners on licenses.

Reality: “Buy it nice or buy it twice.” There are a lot of dirt-cheap and free fonts out there. Most designers would agree that these fonts aren’t often up to professional standards. The problem is that even though we know quality has a cost, the availability of bottom tier fonts can negatively impact our perception of  fonts’ creative value overall. Don’t let that happen!

For a font that will look and perform well, you want something created by a professional. Independent type designers and foundries pay close attention to detail, using a variety of design techniques to create scripts, and ensure that they perform well in different design applications and languages. That’s why some fonts can take months or even years to perfect. Plus, fonts are also a form of software, and it’s essential that the code is, well, up-to-code…so fonts behave correctly. Bottom line: it’s in your best interest to buy from qualified type designers and foundries…not to mention, respectfully purchasing the correct license supports their ongoing work.

Why are both the higher price tag the craft of type design important? See for yourself—there are:

In other words, there are people building entire careers on doing the important, impactful work of crafting beautiful and functional type.

An arrangement of beautifully designed print materials featuring unique fonts and bright colors, shown to debunk the idea that font sourcing doesn’t matter.

Now that you know the true nature of those licensing myths, you’re better equipped to properly handle fonts and other creative assets in projects. To dive deeper and learn how to keep getting’ font and creative asset management right, visit our Creative Asset Compliance Hub! We know…it almost sounds too fun. It’s an evolving compendium of licensing resources for creative professionals trying to navigate a complex space and empower their teams to do brilliant work without compromise.

That sounds like you, right? Enjoy!