The short answer is no. You probably won’t ever pay millions of dollars for a font. But NBC Universal did in 2013! NBCU subsidiary Oxygen Media purchased a basic 36-user license for the ‘Chalet’ font (from House Industries) and managed to find big trouble! The settlement of the lawsuit indicated 20,000 downloads of the font across the company - many times the 36 that they were licensed for. They settled for $175 each infringement - or $3.5million. Just the year before, NBC Universal settled with P22 Type Foundry for $1.5m over its improper use of the Cezanne Regular font. While you may never be sued for millions of dollars, improper font licensing and usage could expose your agency to significant liability.
But Wait! Fonts Aren’t Copyrightable!
That’s true. Fonts and typefaces themselves are not copyrightable. However, computer software that provides instructions on how to render a font or typeface (for display or printing) is afforded the same copyright protections as all other software. All those font files on your Mac, whether TrueType, Postscript, or OpenType, are essentially little programs that tell your Mac how a given typeface should display and print. It controls the size, heights, weights, spacing, kerning, and so on. As with any application, font files require a good bit of time and skill to create. And just like you, font creators expect to be compensated for their knowledge, expertise, and the works they produce.
It’s 10PM. Do You Know What Your Designers Are Doing?
Here's why this could be a horror story for you, the creative agency owner. Do you know where your designers got their fonts? Most designers simply “acquire” fonts. They download them from the web. They bring them to work from their personal machine. They simply copy over the stuff they used at their last three jobs and use those. While your usage may not justify a million-dollar settlement, this disregard for licensure of others’ IP most certainly exposes your agency to a high level of risk. All it takes is your work being seen by a rights holder who can check your licensing of their IP. Or a former/disgruntled employee who blows the whistle. Additionally, when designers gather their fonts from the winds it can dramatically impact productivity. In these cases it’s very hard to tell if a given font family is complete and contains all of the typefaces required and is not corrupt. And even then, almost everyone ends up with a different iteration of a given font. If this sounds like your agency, take a breath. We’ve been supporting creatives for over 15 years, and this describes every agency we’ve ever encountered. Seriously. You’re not alone.
The Fine Print Is Important
Like any other piece of software, fonts come with an end user license agreement (EULA). And virtually no one reads them. But the details of a font’s EULA could cost you big time! The font’s license agreement spells out what usage is and is not OK for that font. Many fonts, particularly “free” ones, are licensed only for non-commercial use. So whether you’re an agency or a freelancer, if you use that font to produce work for which you receive money that is an unauthorized use of that font. What’s more, you may license a font but it may only authorize usage in print work. That’s right - fonts used on the web are usually licensed separately. Web fonts are often sold by the number number of impressions that font will make on your site. Web font licensing is usually done by inserting code into the site that accesses the font and meters its usage. Not paying for fonts is one way to run into licensing problems. Ignoring or violating usage restrictions is another.
Is There A Happy Ending? I Love A Happy Ending!
There certainly can be. The first step we’ve already taken. That’s knowing that you have a problem that presents a risk to your agency. I’m a firm believer that if you’ve found yourself in court, you’ve already lost regardless of the outcome. So what should agencies have in place to minimize their exposure?
- A commitment to licensing the fonts you use. After all, you wouldn’t want your valuable intellectual property used without compensation. If you subscribe to Adobe’s Creative Cloud, you already license a collection of fonts through TypeKit for those users. Many font foundries such as Monotype and Hoefler will license fonts singly or as part of a collection. Again, read the fine print.
- Software such as Universal Type Server can meter font usage and ensure that you don’t exceed your licensing. It also allows you to control who has access to which fonts, who can add fonts to users’ computers and keeps an eye out for corrupted fonts.
- It’s important to educate your team on proper font usage - print vs. web and commercial vs. non-commercial - and the negative impacts of bringing in fonts from wherever.
If you’re concerned about your agency’s exposure from improperly licensed fonts or font problems are having a negative impact on your team’s productivity, we can help. Give us a call at 614-218-8798.