LEGAL FONT USE IN LOGO DESIGN
Updated: Aug 6, 2021
With so many awesome fonts out there to choose from for your logo, what could possibly go wrong?
The short answer: a hefty amount.
In fact, it’s because there are so many possibilities that making a unique, legal logo may be more of a challenge than ever.
No matter what fonts you reach for when constructing your brand’s visual representation, the pitfalls to be avoided are largely the same: using copyright materials or infringing on existing branding. While I’m no lawyer and this, not legal counsel, as a logo designer, I consider it a responsibility of mine to research and inform clients on certain legal considerations that affect what I do and what they can expect from me.
Navigating legal font use in logo design takes know-how and due diligence. Here’s how to do it safely!
1. READ ALL LICENSES
One of the most overlooked and least understood aspects of commercial graphic design is font use.
What is a font?
A font is a piece of software that your computer uses to display text in different visual styles. They are created by graphic designers and programmers alike and made available on the internet for an endless variety of uses. What is absolutely essential is that you and/or your graphic designer know what those permissible uses are.
Every single font available for you to download has a license attached to it, and every license grants you specific, unique permissions.
NEVER assume that a font is free to use just because you have it or can download it for free, and NEVER assume every license is the same. Font licenses vary enormously and it is the user’s responsibility to read theirs.
For example, Segoe Script is a font that came with my PC when I purchased it. I liked the look of it and used it in my initial Logo Further LLC branding. I thought because it came with my computer it must be free. In reality, I only had it because it came with the Windows 10 operating system and was a registered font of the Microsoft Corporation.
I was alerted to this by building my website and finding that the only way I could use it there was through ‘pay as you go’ license purchasing per page view. It was back to the drawing board to redesign a logo and branding that I would have full control over.
On the bright side, the majority of font licenses are not miles of legal jargon. Most make very clear in the first few lines if they, for example:
· are free for commercial use,
· require a one-time purchase to use,
· require a license per computer on which they will be used,
· or require you to pay by the number of page views for web pages on which you use the font.
Font licenses are designed to be very clear regarding what uses are permissible, in order to protect the rights of the creators and users (your graphic designer and you).
2. USE OPEN-LICENSE FONTS
Can’t this just be made easy? Can’t there just be one type of license that lets you do what you want?
There is! — Mostly.
The key phrase is Open Font License. Generally speaking, fonts governed by such a license are made available for any use: commercial, personal, etc. These fonts are the undeniable best candidates for your logo and branding and there are so many of them available. I personally have encountered few reasons to use anything else.
There can still be nuances to individual licenses so reading each is still worthwhile, but by relying solely on open-license fonts you will significantly minimize your liability.
When it comes to researching what is and is not free to use, Google Fonts is an expansive database that allows you to quickly access and view font licenses, open-license, and otherwise. It will even display the ‘Registered Trademark’ symbol next to pertinent fonts.
When it comes to actually downloading free fonts, likely the best source is fontsquirrel.com, which niches in free-for-commercial-use fonts only. It is superior to the popular source dafont.com, which offers many fonts that are free to download, but not free for commercial use. Making fonts like this so easily-accessible can set some up for failure because they can download it with one click and they’re off using it against the license. Here is an example.
Again each license is still unique, and though I recommend Font Squirrel, some licenses for fonts available there have made me personally uncomfortable using them for my work; thus, I opted against it.
Lastly, if you find a free download for a font on one site that is for purchase on another, turn back! That site is likely distributing pirated fonts and you do not want what they’re selling.
3. CONSIDER DISTRIBUTION RESTRICTIONS
Because many licenses detail permissions regarding the software’s distribution, all font files should be treated such that you do not send them to your graphic designer and vice versa. You should both download them independently from the source foundry as many licenses consider font file sharing to be unlawful distribution.
A dependable graphic designer will convert text elements in a graphic file to paths (shapes rather than typeable text) because embedding the text in the image file itself could also be considered unlawful distribution of the font software.
This is why a designer will send you an image in which the letters are treated as polygons by your computer. Then they will tell you which fonts they used so you can download them yourself, ideally for free or at an agreed-upon price.
One of the reasons I prefer Inkscape over an Adobe subscription is Adobe often includes fonts that the graphic artist gets as part of the subscription, but the client would have to purchase separately to continue using for their other branding projects. By using open-source design software and fonts, unpleasant surprises for both parties are minimized.
4. AVOID LOOPHOLES
One of the main drives behind becoming a logo creator was seeing how many graphic artists out there were perfectly okay with dancing on the line of legality when the client was the one at stake.
Graphic design is still customer service and there is a responsibility to do right by clients. In this instance, that means not putting their branding in legal harm’s way.
An unfortunate number of designers will argue that it is ok to use a copyright font if you are creating what is considered a static image file, such as a .JPEG or .PNG which cannot be edited, because those files do not store text data. This is tremendously shortsighted.
Because clients will likely use the same fonts in their logo and their other brand content (websites, ads, etc.), it is detrimental to use a font in your logo that you could not use elsewhere. Also, a professional should deliver more than just a .JPEG or .PNG, but also the editable source files the logo was created in.
This is the difference between getting a holistic, future-proof logo from a professional graphic designer and a 15-dollar logo from a freelance Photoshop wiz.
Similarly, some graphic artists would argue that you can use virtually any font you want in a logo as long as you make changes to its appearance. This too, is inviting unnecessary trouble.
While some may be able to get away with this if no one notices, that does not make it any more honest or safe. Should the copyright owner get wind of unauthorized uses of their fonts, the extent to which they wish to pursue your company is up to them.
If you or your logo creator are having to justify the use of digital materials with “no one will notice,” that is a sign that you should adjust your approach.
Avoiding font license violations in logo design can be complex, hence the reason for professional designers. There is no single consequence of violating copyright, but by researching and creating an original logo with open-license materials, such difficulties are easily avoided.