Where Can I Legally Use My Fonts?

POSTED ON Oct 18, 2013

Joel Friedlander

Written by Joel Friedlander

Home > Blog > Book Design, Book Typography, Self-Publishing > Where Can I Legally Use My Fonts?

By David Bergsland

Quite a number of authors have written recently to get some clarity on font usage. Can they use the fonts that came with a software package in their book? On the cover? What about free font downloads, are those okay? I turned to type designer and author David Bergsland (whose last article here was Typography in Kindle? Yes We Can.) to straighten us out. Here’s his report, and I suggest you bookmark this page, you’ll want to come back.

In this digital age, the question of font usage comes up much more than it used to. Now that authors are producing their own books, another wrinkle has been added. But it all revolves around copyrights.

How do font designers make a living?

The same way authors do—by royalties. But, the situation is more critical for font designers. First of all, the time and effort required can be compared to writing a book. But the market for font sales is much smaller. It takes hundreds of hours and commonly a year or more to design a font. This is especially true now that fonts have hundreds of characters.

Plus, like a trilogy or multi-part series, a font design commonly comes is a set of fonts. The minimum is usually four versions: Regular, Italic, Bold, and Bold Italic, but that is just the beginning for fonts used for book design. Here the norm is six to eight fonts per family or more.

A font designer can easily invest large portions of his or her life designing a font. Like authors, some are skilled and some are hacks. The font market is flooded with bad designers and automated thieves. All of this is complicated by copyright laws.

Fonts designs cannot be copyrighted in the United States

This is not true overseas. Many countries allow you to copyright your font designs. In the United States it is grossly unethical to steal font designs. That did not matter as much in the 19th century and earlier because all font designs were made from hand-cut metal masters.

Metal is difficult to carve so all you could really do was the best you were capable of carving. Font designs were a huge investment of time and effort. Font designers might do a couple of designs in their entire life.

Digital fonts are software and the writing can be copyrighted

So, even in the United States, all fonts presently produced are copyrighted. If you use a font without paying for it, you are a thief. But, scanning and tracing fonts is very easy and can be easily automated to try and slide around the copyright issues. Especially in the PC world, this problem is epidemic. Any time you see a CD with a thousand fonts or more for ten bucks, it is almost certain they are all stolen.

This is a new problem, beginning with phototype

Prior to World War II, stealing a font design was so difficult that it was very rare. Plus, font design is so restricted by its content that many fonts are derivative to start with. Up until the 1950s, there were only a few hundred font designs available.

But that all changed with the development of phototype. Now the characters could be reproduced photographically. With the explosion of presstype in the 1960s and 70s, graphic designers suddenly had a few thousand fonts to use. But that radically changed in the 1980s.

Most people do not know it, but serious digital illustration for desktop publishing started with font design software. The first was Fontographer. It was the first PostScript illustration program with its release in January 1986 by Altsys, with version 2.0 coming out in the fall of 1986.

Illustrator was not released until January 1987. FreeHand came out in 1988 as a further development of Fontographer into a complete drawing program. The first public demo of Photoshop happened about the same time, though version 1 was not released until 1990.

Digital font design software transformed the industry

By the mid-1990s, almost every professional graphic designer had a copy of Fontographer which came bundled with FreeHand 4 and 5, before Adobe gobbled up both of them and put them out to pasture.

I got my first copy in 1993-94, about the time I signed my first book contract to write Printing in a Digital World, the first textbook on the new all-digital workflow in printing. I designed all the fonts used in that book because I was so frustrated by the limitations of early PostScript fonts.

But I was one of many graphic designers playing with the new possibilities. The result was much like the current on-demand self-publishing paradigm—suddenly there were hundreds, then thousands of amateurs or even just hobbyists producing fonts. Most of them had little training except for their skill in typography.

Soon, companies were created to serve this new glut of font designers. I started selling my fonts with Makambo in the late 1990s. It went mainline with MyFonts around the turn of the century. But online font retailers were springing up all over.

The result was much like we saw with Lulu in 2002 followed by CreateSpace, Scribd and many more selling on-demand print books or printable quality PDFs for download. Then everything exploded with Kindle, then iBooks, Nook, Kobo, and the mess we have today.

How many fonts are there? No one knows for sure

Basically people gave up trying to figure it out in the middle of the first decade of the new millennium. By then it was assumed there were a couple hundred thousand fonts.

But purists didn’t count most of the free fonts available—much like the traditional publishers have had a real difficult time counting the huge number of books published by companies like Smashwords and Scribd—among may others. Smashwords alone adds 100,000 books a year.

Fonts in ebooks are easy to steal

There was always a small problem with fonts from PDFs. A decent hacker could pull out a font relatively easily to pirate a font. EPUBs greatly added to this problem. An ePUB is simply a zipped archive with the extension changed. When you un-zip an ePUB, the fonts embedded are simply laying there in a folder called Fonts. Anyone can just take these fonts and install them on their computer.

Worse, as the spirit of lawlessness increases, the more larcenous among us can take these “free” fonts and sell them anywhere they like—or simply give them away. This piracy of fonts is a huge problem. It attacks the basic needs of the font designers—getting food on the table and paying rent. So, like idiots everywhere, the assumption was “we’ll make it illegal” to keep our intellectual property rights safe. But we all know you cannot legislate morality.

Font sellers considered ebooks like software and sold ebook licensing with OEM pricing

OEM [Original Equipment Manufacturer] pricing is for fonts which are included with software like the fonts included with your operating system, games, or the fonts that come with your copy of Microsoft Office or the Adobe Creative Suite.

These fonts are sold for a few cents up to a couple dollars per font per number of copies. In other words, even at a penny per copy, Office might sell a million copies or more. A million pennies is $10,000 per font. That would be $10,000 for the regular, $10,000 for the italic, and so on.

Recently, fonts included in games and ePUBs were sold with a yearly subscription of $250 or so, per font—minimum. As a result, most fonts available do not have a license to be used in ePUBs or Kindle books. No author would pay that.

Fonts in operating systems and Word are not licensed for ePUBs or Kindle

A special license needs to be purchased to embed fonts in these ebooks. So, the result has been that fonts are not normally embedded in ebooks. This solves the problem for the font designers, but it certainly does not help you as the book designer. Plus, it greatly hurts readability and clear communication with your readers.

Ebooks require fonts designed for reading

These fonts are relatively rare and until very recently none of them had a license to enable their use in an ebook other than a PDF. These are fonts like Garamond, Jenson, Galliard, Bembo, Caslon, and the rest of the classic font families. Most of the thousands of new fonts are designed for what is called display use: ads, brochures, and the like.

Remember, the modern ebook (ePUB and Kindle) is a very recent phenomenon. The first Kindle books were available only in 2007 when the first Kindle was released. The existing pros considered it a joke, as they do all brand-new technology.

The Mac was released in 1984, but it didn’t become the industry standard until the early 1990s. Windows did not fully support PostScript desktop publishing until NT4 and Windows 98 in 1998 or so.

The same has been true with the modern ebook. No one took them seriously among professional designers until the release of the iPad and iBooks. Prior to that it was all geek stuff handcrafted in raw code using HTML and CSS. Embedding fonts in HTML did not become commonplace until near the end of the first decade of the new millennium. As a result, ebooks with embedded fonts were very rare.

The fonts you have are licensed for PDFs only

The fonts on your computer are usually licensed so that they can be embedded in a PDF. PDFs are used for print books, as you know. So, you can pick a font which reads really well and use it with no problem in the PDF you upload to CreateSpace, Lulu, Lightning Source, or any of the other print on demand vendors.

None of them can be legally embedded in an ePUB or its variant Kindle KF8. Even today, non-PDF ebooks with embedded fonts can only be read on Kindle Fires and iBooks with the exception of a few relatively rare ereader apps.

Poor font choice and bad typography are two of the reasons why ePUBs remain relatively difficult to read

Except for iBooks, your font choices are very limted and many fonts available on an ereader were simply not designed for readability. They work relatively well for novels, but their inadequacies rapidly become a real problem with complexly formatted non-fiction.

Free fonts!

There are tens of thousands of these available. The problem is that most of them are pure piracy or produced by designers with no font design and little typography training. Until the new millennium, all book designers were professional graphic designers. The primary foundational skill taught to graphic designers is typography. Free fonts are in another world of typographic horror.

I’m not saying that there are no good free fonts. I’m saying this is living on the wild frontier and many of these free fonts are simply dangerous. With Windows in the 20th century, a bad font could actually wipe out your hard drive. That may still be true. Most corrupted documents are produced by using a damaged or corrupted font. Many free fonts are corrupt or even carry a virus.

Free fonts can be used with care

Joel uses some carefully selected free fonts with his Word templates for producing books. But this is rare. Even free fonts often come with licensing restrictions which do not allow you to embed them in software to be sold—like in an ePUB.

In general (as usual), you get what you pay for. A decent, professional font will cost you from $10 to $40 or more—each. Virtually none of these include ePUB licensing. My fonts do, but only if you buy them directly from me at bergsland.org.

The Creative Cloud changes the game

First of all, InDesign can now simply export an ePUB with embedded fonts which validates and is accepted by both iBooks and Kindle KDP. This is huge! It means that professional designers can now craft beautiful ebooks of professional quality and directly export them from the normal professional formatting software—InDesign.

TypeKit fonts with ePUB licensing are included with your Creative Cloud subscription

Now, by simply subscribing to InDesign Creative Cloud or the entire Creative Cloud, you get several hundred excellent fonts with a license to use them in ePUBs. I should say, they’ve demoed this publicly and it is only awaiting reliable availability.

This will become the new standard for professional designers producing on-demand books, both in print and in e-readers. Fonts to use in their print books and online in websites and ebooks will become the norm for professional designers. Adobe says they already have a million subscribers to Creative Cloud worldwide.

The lack of professional WYSIWYG page layout software for the new ebooks has now disappeared. The major problem has always been Microsoft Word, which has very limited typographic capabilities. Joel’s Word templates are the only solution I am aware of to this design dilemma. But the fonts which come with Word are not licensed for ePUB and Kindle use.

Trust me when I say that you want to use embedded fonts in your ePUBs and Kindle KF8 files. Many new ereaders which support embedded fonts are in the works. Adobe just joined the Readium consortium, for example. My book design fonts sold directly from my Website [https://www.bergsland.org/fonts/] include ePUB licensing. I will be offering more packages soon.

If you have specific questions about font usage, please leave them in the comments.

David BergslandDavid Begsland has been an illustrator, graphic designer, typographer, and art director for over 40 years. He taught these materials in Community & Business Colleges for 20 years or so. He started designing fonts in 1994, and now has over a hundred fonts for sale at MyFonts.com and Monotype’s various sites. His personal best selling book is either “Practical font Design” or “Writing In InDesign”. He doesn’t keep track of stuff like that. The center of his online presence is his technical blog: The Skilled Workman at https://bergsland.org

David Bergsland is the designer of Contenu, available at Myfonts.com. Amazon links contain my affiliate code.

Joel Friedlander

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Joel Friedlander

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