Just because It's Free Online, Doesn't Mean It's Free To Use (Font Edition)
Recently while working on a freelance project, a client of mine wanted to use some fonts she found online. As a designer, I had to explain to her that just because it’s on an editing app like Canva, I wasn’t sure if it would be legal or wise to use those fonts in her logo.
While thinking about it, it occurred to me that the every day person is not aware of much copyright laws or creative common use online. To many people, they see something accessible online and think it’s free to use. But not so!
I need a license to use a font? Yes!
I’m not a legal expert so always refer to a lawyer if you have questions.
The problem with online editing apps is that it blurs the line between what is legal and what is not legal to use.
Fonts all have licenses you have to buy if you want to use them or you can find free ones but you have to double check if it’s free for non-commercial use or commercial use or personal use. Unless you create your own, then it’s fair game.
Regardless of how you acquire a font, it's important to read the license that tells you exactly how and not how to use the font. Every font will be different so it's important to double check each font you use.
Although U.S law doesn't technically protect typefaces and fonts through copyright, the computer program that uses it is.
Two ways to be in the clear is to make your own typeface or pay someone to create one for you. There is some debate about if you can legally print every character and glyph, scan them, and then trace each one on your computer. But that gets into a grey area I'm not sure about.
Typefaces can be customized and used as part of a logo design. And then when arranged purposefully or artistically, that can be copyrighted as a logo.
Now if you don't want to pay lots of money to get a font, you can look up and use free fonts. Most free fonts allow for complete use (including commercial projects and logotypes), but sometimes free fonts are illegally copied. So it's always best to make sure it comes from a trusted source.
That's why as a designer, I prefer to get fonts from places like Adobe Typekit or Google Fonts. I know I can find completely free and downloadable fonts without having to worry about restrictions. You can even trademark and copyright any logos using the fonts.
It's also important to note that while there are a lot of great fonts out there, not all fonts are created equal. A lot of free fonts should be tweaked by a designer to ensure the spacing is correct and sometimes these fonts can be missing letters or even uppercase or lowercase letters.
Another important distinction to point out that is even if it is a free font, there are usually restrictions on sending fonts to other people. You'll typically want to double check the license being used, but otherwise you'll want the other person to download or buy the font themselves.
Here is a great video on the subject from Crowdspring and their FAQ on the subject:
What are Font Foundries?
A Font Foundry is a company or person that creates or distributes typefaces for people to use. Examples would include Fontspring, Dafont, Adobe Typekit, Google Fonts, and many more. These companies you can purchase licenses to use fonts or get free fonts from.
When Using Canva for Font for a Commercial Project…
Say you’re using Canva or Google Drive, both probably subscribe to a font house to use their fonts, but that doesn’t always give us the right to exclusively use them on anything just cause. My rule of thumb is to never use an online font on a commercial project outside of its intended use.
Like with Canva, don’t use them on a paid Instagram post. But it’s probably okay to use on a regular Instagram post.
When referring to Canva’s licensing agreements, it’s important to understand the distinctions between them.
Free Images and Videos- You are free to use them how you will but only you. Attribution not required but appreciated.
One Design- When you pay for one image or video, you are allowed to use it but only you.
Multi-Use- You and your team members are allowed to use and transfer photos for your non-commercial and commercial projects.
Extended- You get extended rights for these photos.
Unlimited Photos- You and only you have unlimited photos to use.
Take note of their Free Images License Agreement, I think it’s important to note that they highlight
We can’t guarantee that any free images have the appropriate releases for commercial use.
Just like images, it’s important to make sure that every font you use, regardless if it comes from Canva or another site, you have the correct permissions to use.
You can actually check out a list of commercially free fonts via their blog.
But How Expensive are Fonts?
One of my favorite fonts is Proxima Nova
You can find it on Google Drive and other places, but I never use it outside of those apps. So I couldn’t slap it on anything I want and call it good. Unless I bought the rights to it...and the entire thing is $799 dollars.
To buy an individual font weight/style, it’s just $30 for that one and even then, I have to buy rights to use it online, in e-books, or other formats, which raises that $30 even more.
On top of that you might have to buy a number of user license if you want more than 5 people to be able to install and use it.
So that one $30 weight can easily become $150, times say 40 font styles and you’re looking at a lot of money.
Not all fonts are that expensive, but it can get pricy really fast.
Take Netflix Sans for Example-
Remember how I mentioned that creating your own font saves money?
Netflix in 2018 created their own typeface called Netflix Sans (sans being a reference to san-serifs) because they were spending millions a year to license a font called Gothan for all their shows and text on Netflix.
So to save money, they created their own font.
Not only is this a smart money move for Netflix, but it also sets them apart from other streaming companies. Gotham is a popular font so using their own typeface makes them unique. No one else can use Netflix sans.
Remember to double check your fonts
Overall, it’s important to remember to double check your fonts and make sure that you have the rights to use them as you wish. In most cases, using free fonts are your best bet if you’re starting out or don’t have a lot of money to spend on them.
I personally recommend always using a trusted font source so you know the fonts are free to use. Not all font foundries are equal and not all double check if the font was stolen or not. So better be safe than sorry.
POINT BEING: Any time money crosses hands for a creative project, it’s always a smart idea to double check the usage rights or use a font you explicitly know is free to use across the board.