Interview With Joyce Ketterer, Font Foundry CEO And Licensing Guru

Tara Storozynsky
September 22, 2023

Font licenses…. They’re so mysterious! Always saying one thing and then enforcing another— oh wait, they don’t do that? The biggest issue is that font users don’t understand the limitations of a basic font license in the first place? Huh. Well, that stinks.

We speak with creatives, operations specialists, and IT gurus every day to see how they ensure compliance. It’s a nuanced discipline, and the conversation around it needs to keep evolving. So we found another perspective that’s absolutely crucial, but often underestimated. A font licensing expert! Who’d a thought?

We sat down to chat with Joyce Ketterer, a licensing educator and font foundry CEO of fifteen years. Joyce offers the perspective of someone who both creates and enforces font licenses on behalf of Darden Studio, a leading independent font foundry. As you can imagine, it was an absolute dream to interview her!

Here are a few interview highlights. That’s right, time for a highlight reel!


On What Exactly A Font License Does

A font license is the contract that governs the use of the font by the end user or licensee. I’m not a historian, but I think there were always licenses, even when (fonts) were pieces of metal. It’s very much the same as the end user license agreement you’d receive for other kinds of software, or the kind of license you might get if you were licensing a photograph or music for work. In many cases, the font license is a hybrid of these two license models: the software model and the intellectual property model.

On Licensing Permissions, And What They Permit

There is no universal answer to what a license will permit. Once I spent weeks thinking about it, and the only thing I could say is consistent is that all font licenses will allow you to install the font somewhere and use it in some way.

At Darden Studio, we try to be very clear that we are licensing software and exactly what it covers. For instance, our basic level of licensing permits installation on computers for use by people to create images and documents, and we basically don’t restrict how those images and documents get used, until there is a need to embed the font. Other foundries might draw a distinction between personal and commercial use, or packaging, social media.

On The Biggest Misunderstanding About Font Licensing

The most common mistake is thinking that if you have purchased a license at any level, that you can then use it in any way you’re capable of using it. That’s just not true.

People tend to rely on software to tell them when they’re not allowed to do a thing.

The way that the computer operating systems interact with fonts is that they don’t drop any restrictions. Not only will it not stop you from doing something that is very obviously not allowed, like changing a font format to embed it, it’s also not going to stop you from duplicating a font and distributing it to a thousand people.

On Why Fonts Don’t Stop You From Using Them Improperly

When operating system software was first designed, no one really thought about fonts. Operating systems basically treat fonts as plugins. I’ve spoken with people at Microsoft and Apple, and there’s just no way to change this without completely rethinking operating system software.

On Environments Ripe For Licensing Problems

One of the ways you get into trouble is when you’ve got a lot of departments doing different things, with no central repository of knowledge.


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