You may remember a month or so ago when we went over the basics of 3rd party imagery. Now it’s time for the counterpart, typography!

Fonts and typefaces are similar to 3rd party imagery in that they are subject to licensing. Proper usage can be confusing, so we’re here to help clarify what is and is not ethical use, and guide you toward resources where you can access information on each font you would like to use, so you can do it legally.

1. What is a font and is it copyrightable?

The answer to this question is somewhat complicated, and comes down to a question of typeface versus font. A typeface is the collection of letters and symbols, styled to create a unified collection. A font is the software/mechanism used to produce the typeface.

In the US, a typeface is not copyrightable but can still be subject to design patent and trademark. The reasoning behind this is that their functionality eclipses their creativity. On the other hand, a font can be copyrighted, and must be licensed for use, as the software used to create the typeface is considered to have the requisite creativity for copyright.

2. If I outline a typeface using design software… I’m ok, right?

With a couple of stipulations, yes. You still have to purchase a license to the font you’re using. And you have to personally create the outline because the actual outlining of the typeface — the combination of points you select to imitate the shape of the type – is copyrighted and belongs to the person who created it.


Photo: Nick Sherman (via Flickr)

3. If I can outline the font, why do I need to worry about licensing at all?

You as a user have to purchase a license to the font in question to use it in your design, and to outline it. Different fonts have different licenses with different rules, so you always have to check and see how you are allowed to use a given font.

Standing for end-user license agreement, EULA is the license between the licensor and the purchaser of a font. You agree to it when you purchase the font, so you better know what you’re agreeing to with your purchase.

What to ask about the fonts you’re using

The EULA should refer to all of these points — so check for them carefully:

  1. Is this font legal to use in the context in which you’re working?
    Can you use the font commercially? Can you use it in logo, print, web design? Can you make modifications to the font? Not all fonts are created equally, so make sure you’re using one in the right context.
  2. Can I edit the font in question?
    Some fonts are allowed to be modified, and some are not.
  3. Can I pass this font on to the client?
    The answer is most likely no, but always double check to see if you’re allowed to share the font with your client.

What are good resources to find fonts?

There are hundreds of places to find fonts online. Here are some of the more dependable sites:


Fontsquirrel has a page dedicated to each font, complete with a button leading to licensing. For example, the Aller typeface licensing can be found here.



Dafont doesn’t offer complete licensing information on their site directly, but does provide links to the website of each font foundry so you can consult the original source. All you have to do is click on the creator’s name or the word “site” next to it.




Finding the licensing on MyFonts is a little more difficult — it requires that you sign up as a member. You then select your font, and on the final page of purchase you are able to read through and check off the licensing agreement and terms of use for the font.

However, my recommendation is that you do a little bit of looking into the font foundry before you select a font at this site, as it may have more complete information on usage.



Each font has a dedicated page. If you scroll all the way to the bottom, underneath the options for purchase, there is a link to the EULA.

You can also look up licensing by foundry: Fontshop Licenses


This all seems like a lot of work, but in the end if you collect a set of fonts for which you’ve done the legal research, you’re going to save both yourself and your client a lot of time and worry by knowing that you’re using your type properly.

Know any other dependable sites to access fonts?

Featured image: arnoKath (via Flickr)