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The Hidden Risks of Font Licensing Mistakes

Great Work Combines Creativity with Proper Font Licensing

Creative professionals love fonts, there’s no doubt about it. Fonts are to graphic designers what paints are to painters: essential tools for their creative work.

Fonts offer designers an incredible opportunity for creativity in a wide variety of media. But with great potential comes great risk, unless agencies and marketing teams understand font licensing.

The average collection contains more than 4500 fonts. If creative teams don’t examine their font end user license agreements (font EULAs), they might run into some serious problems including brand erosion and legal liability.

Using fonts without a license can put companies at risk, but how problematic can font licensing be? Do font sharing and font copyright laws affect all users equally? Extensis conducted a font survey to help businesses understand how fonts are used, and expose the hidden risks of font copyright infringement.

We surveyed a broad selection of graphic designers and creative professionals to learn more about their font usage. With over 2,250 responses, we were able to draw some surprising conclusions about how creative professionals employ fonts in their work. Along the way, we share a few ideas for how designers and creative professionals might change their approach to minimize font licensing woes.

Font Survey Details

  • Who took the survey?
  • Graphic Designers
  • University educated or higher
  • In career 15+ years
  • No formal font licensing instruction

Font Survey Methodology: Survey was taken by a self-selecting group of Extensis customers and respondents to a public call for feedback on Twitter, design forums, and other social media.

Using Fonts Without a License? Careful with That.


Fonts are licensed just like any other piece of software. But fonts haven’t always garnered the same respect as other software on a user’s system.

Font Sharing and Font Migration

Every designer has their favorite fonts they like to use in projects. At one time it was common for a designer to fill up an external hard drive with all of their fonts from one job so they could take it with them to the new project. While many creative professionals are beginning to understand the value of fonts and the risk of moving fonts in this way, font migration is still an issue.

Survey Question #1: Do designers bring their personal fonts into professional projects?Hidden-Risk-illustration-01

With that migration, an even larger number of designers said that they had shared fonts with others without checking the font licensing requirements beforehand.

Survey Question #2: Do designers trade fonts?Hidden-Risk-illustration-02

While many employers understand the risk of using fonts that were not appropriately licensed in professional work, these figures may be shocking to some of those who manage creative teams.

Is This A Legitimate Case of Font Sharing? Or a Violation of Font EULAs?

Just because you share a font with someone else doesn’t mean you’ve crossed the line. Not all transferring of fonts is considered inappropriate or prohibited by font EULAs. For example, many font licenses include the ability to transfer an actual font file to a printer or other output provider, as long as the person receiving the font has also purchased a license.

Do designers transfer fonts to third parties?


Even though many service providers are no longer part of the output process, font transfer to output providers is still a common practice. There are also an increasing number of open source fonts that allow free transferal. Keep in mind that there is no single overarching rule that governs all font licenses all the time. Details matter. The terms of font licenses vary from font to font and from one foundry to the next, so read them carefully.

Building New Creative Work While Acknowledging Font Rights

With so many variations across different font EULAs, there’s always a risk of font copyright infringement if you don’t way attention. But how many designers are exposing themselves to these kinds of risks? Let’s look at how designers locate fonts for new projects:

  • 93% Use fonts they already have
  • 56% Download new fonts for free, for example, from Google Fonts.
  • 26% Purchase fonts before client approval, for example, from Adobe Fonts or from individual foundries.
  • 32% “Locate” a copy of the font online

Almost a third of all designers source fonts without appropriate licensing. This figure should set off alarm bells for businesses, creative agencies, and type foundries. If fonts are introduced into creative workflows in this way, that could be a ticking time bomb. These fonts won’t be tracked in font servers, they won’t be managed the same way as other digital assets, and they’re easy to overlook when it comes time to purchase creative assets for a project.

In this example, it’s possible that the art director did not budget for a new font purchase, creating an awkward budgeting discussion with the client. Even more troubling, the client might get a surprise call from the type foundry when the unlicensed font is discovered in use.

Font licensing related lawsuits that stretch into the millions of dollars have been brought against corporate brands, creative agencies, and publishers in recent years. For example, NBCUniversal has been sued three times in recent years for over $5 million US related to font licensing issues. Obtaining and understanding font licenses is clearly a matter worth serious consideration and attention.

Understanding and Following Font Licenses

It’s important to understand how designers view and follow fonts licenses. Much like the licenses that you probably click right though when you install new software, font licenses are rarely read, and even more infrequently understood by creative pros. Did you know that some licenses prohibit using fonts in print over a certain size? Or charge more for logo use? If you didn’t, you’re not alone.

Do designers read font licenses?Hidden-Risk-illustration-04

Are font licenses easy to understand?Hidden-Risk-illustration-05

Even with this ambiguity in EULA comprehension, designers have no choice but to move forward with their creative work.

Do designers understand what they are licensed to do with fonts?Hidden-Risk-illustration-06

Understanding font licensing – or failing to – can cause problems at many points in a designer’s creative workflow. In addition, because there is no standardization of font licensing, there are potentially many license options available from each foundry. Some common font rights include the following:

  • Permission to embed fonts in PDFs
  • The right to use specific fonts in eBooks
  • Approval to apply certain fonts on webpages
  • Rights to use fonts on packaging

And this is just a taste. The dizzying array of options from foundries and typography vendors can lead to problems when fonts are used in the wrong ways. When designers consider how to use fonts commercially, they need to consider every aspect of font EULAs.

Problems tracking font use optionsHidden-Risk-illustration-07

And far too often, those who employ creative professionals aren’t doing enough to make font rights and restrictions clear to designers.

Employers not making usage requirements clearHidden-Risk-illustration-08

How to Solve Font EULA Problems in the Creative Workflow

Every day, all around the world, designers use fonts in ways that violate their EULAs. What might seem like an innocent question – “Where can I get the font I need?” – could potentially expose their teams and clients to significant risk and even font lawsuits.

So, what’s the best way for teams to solve font EULA problems that might otherwise plague their creative workflow?

The first step is to get a handle on the fonts currently in use. Many organizations begin by dividing their collection into two groups – known licensed fonts, and fonts of unknown origin. Creative users can then pull from the “known” pile every time they need one of these fonts. Every time designers need a font from the pile of “unknown” fonts, a possible previous font purchase can be researched. If no purchase record for that font can be located, an appropriate license can be acquired through known channels.

One of the easiest ways for marketing teams and agencies to simply the challenges of font EULAs is to implement a font server to track font licenses and centralize font management. After implementing a font server, it’s much easier to add and track font license information. When companies rely on a single platform to manage all their fonts along with the associated EULA details, everyone in the company will have a much clearer view of which fonts are approved for different types of media.

Keep in mind that no font software – on its own – can put an end to the risks associated with font copyright infringement. The best solution to font licensing challenges is an empowered workforce. It’s important to educate everyone on your team who interacts with fonts about the importance of appropriate font licensing. When people fully understand what’s at stake, they are less likely to tread in areas that could get your company and clients in trouble.


mcgarrybowen implemented Universal Type Server to reduce their font compliance risk.

See how they did it.

Read the Case Study