Untangling Font Licensing

By Allan Haley, author, lecturer and expert on all things typographic

“They’re only fonts – why do they have to be so complicated?” Sound familiar? For many of us, font licensing is right up there with fractal equations and Bernoullian logic on the ease of understanding scale.

Font licensing can be especially complicated for experiential designers. Many of your projects call for fonts to be used in a variety of environments: on servers and the web, in applications, games, e-publications, kiosks and more. If you’re attempting to license fonts from a number of providers for an array of environments—you’ve got a situation that’s all frying pans and fires. Cobbling something together with free fonts may seem like the only answer. But it needn’t be—if you do a little homework.

Type First

Determine which typefaces you want to use from the outset—for two reasons. The first, is that you want to be sure the designs will perform well in their intended environments. A good typeface for large hardcopy applications may not be the best design for type imaged on a small screen. Additionally, compromises in choice may have to be made if the project calls for the same typeface in both environments.

The second reason is about availability and cost. While some fonts are available from a variety of providers (Proxima Nova is a good example), others, like Gotham, can only be licensed from one source. Some fonts also cost a lot more to license than others. Eight weights of Neue Helvetica run about $280 for a desktop license. Tex Gyre Heros, an open source font similar to Neue Helvetica, has no license fees for desktop—or any other use. OK, Neue Helvetica is a superior design to Tex Gyre Heros—both aesthetically and technically—but quality has its costs.

John Giardiniere, font license extraordinaire at Fontspring, has similar advice. “Designers should feel free to involve a font provider at an earlier stage, especially if they haven’t purchased fonts before. Font licensing isn’t that complicated, and we work hard to make it simpler, so just talking to someone who knows what to do can speed the process up considerably.”

Once you’ve determined what fonts you want to license, find out how much it will cost to take advantage of them for your project. Some web font licenses are one-time fees, while others are for a subscription service. Web fonts license fees will also vary depending on whether you purchase a “self-hosted” or “provider-hosted” license. Self-hosted web font licenses are normally a one-time fee, while provider-hosted licenses usually require a monthly or yearly fee based on how much traffic the site gets. If you are using fonts in an app, the fee can be a one-time charge of around $200 or a yearly subscription for the life of the app.

Avoid Surprises

Next, consider the whole project: now and—to the best you can determine—in the future. The project may start as simple back-lit wayfinding (about as easy as it gets, as far as font licensing goes), but if it expands to the web, kiosks and an app, things aren’t so simple anymore.

Some font providers offer a suite of interrelated licenses that allow for simple and relatively painless growth in font uses. Others require a completely different license for each application of the font.

Christopher Slye, business manager at Adobe Type & Typekit, suggests doing a little research into license agreements before making your final choice for a font provider. “Take some time to find and read one or two foundry license agreements, with the goal of just getting better acquainted with how they’re written, and to get a better perspective on what you really need before approaching a foundry. I’d also recommend browsing foundry websites to get a sense of how pricing runs for different kinds of licenses. You won’t necessarily find a price for every kind of license but coming in with a realistic budget and expectations can make the process a lot easier.”

Giardiniere also offers some advice on avoiding surprises: “Many times, I find designers asking for too much or too little, and then completely changing their mind on what licenses they need once they talk to me. For example, often a company will ask for a ‘full buyout’ or an ‘all-inclusive enterprise license’ when really, they just need their 100 employees covered for all the documents they’re creating.”

Shop Around

Many of your font orders will require human intervention. Take advantage of it. If you have flexibility in typeface choice or options in your license needs, let font providers know.

Try to limit your order to one font provider. You’ll more than likely be getting consistent pricing and support rather than having to coordinate pricing and licensing guidelines that might vary significantly from one provider to another.

Look to expertise within the font provider company. It should be able to provide guidance and support regarding your needs. Need guidance on the best typefaces for both hardcopy and small screen reading, or for copy that must be read on the fly? Your font provider should have what it takes to help you out. Slye has similar advice: “Every foundry should be prepared to help a customer understand what licensing they really need, what they’ll get and just as important, what they will not get.”

When the Toner Hits the Wood pulp

To get some first-hand information, a number of font providers were contacted to provide a price quote for the following font order—two responded.

The Order

Two fonts from a brand name typeface family for 100 digital wayfinding kiosks. The kiosks would allow directional signage and directories to be updated to reflect changes to the layout of the facility. Each kiosk would have its own dedicated computer, but it would not be connected to any other imaging or printing device. The two fonts would also be embedded into a wayfinding app.

Adobe/Typekit  $1,050

Slye first provided the following information and caveats, “To be clear, the licensing described here would be for Adobe Type, not Typekit. The former is Adobe’s foundry, the latter is its subscription service. Also, I’d emphasize that this pricing is for a fictional example.

“The quote would be, for us, a custom license agreement, so the price could change after a conversation with further details. Furthermore, pricing changes over time, so this might be quite different, say, a year from now.

“Adobe would charge $455 per font for the kiosk use. By Adobe’s EULA terms, this is covered by a standard desktop license. Each kiosk is a computer or “license seat,” on which the fonts are being used—so the given price reflects 100 seats.

“To embed in a single wayfinding app, Adobe would charge $140 per font, per year. There would be no limit on the distribution of the app, i.e. on the number of users. The price might be different for more fonts, a multi-year contract, or other modifications.”

Font Spring  $1,200

Giardiniere explains, “We’ll use a $29 per weight because that’s a pretty standard price for individual fonts. Base prices are important because our custom licenses scale based on that price.

“Generally, our OEM embedding licenses scale anywhere from 10-40 times the base price of a license. A license for just 100 kiosks is small, so we most likely would not go beyond a 10 times multiplier in that case, so $290 for each weight, or $580 total.

“App licenses are priced in two ways depending on the vendor. Some of our vendors use a per app cost, often at 10x the base price, so that’s another $580 in this case. Other’s go for a scaling price based on “monthly active users,” which scales from three to 40 times depending on the usage. So, an application expecting less than a hundred thousand monthly active users would be about $120, while a huge app with millions and millions of monthly active users, which required an unlimited usage license, would be $1200.

“So, depending on how the licenses are priced and what they buy, you’re looking at about $1200 total for those two fonts for the OEM license and an app license for one app, or anywhere from $700-$1780 for an OEM license and corresponding app for an app license.”

OK, font licensing isn’t exactly simple. But, if you think about type first, shop around, and work with a font provider with depth of expertise, it doesn’t have to be on a par with fractal equations.