Everything you Need to Know About Font Licensing for the Web

Unless you’re a copyright or digital media licensing pro, font licensing can be really confusing. Custom fonts are increasingly being used on the web via several methods. Each method may require specific licensing to cover your intended use and often times font licenses simply don’t specify restrictions associated with these new technologies.

In this article, we’ll take a look at font licensing for web usage via methods such as FLIR, sFIR, Cufón, @font-face, etc. and ways to protect yourself.

Cover Your Butt

Read the EULA (End User License Agreement) of every piece of digital media you want to use and make sure it permits you to use it in the way you intend. If you’re not sure, do yourself a favor and double check by asking the author before you use it. If the license doesn’t specify restrictions for your intended use, assume the license does not permit it and get explicit permission directly from the author first.

By assuming you’re allowed to use a piece of digital media when the license doesn’t specify your intended use, you’re putting yourself at great risk for legal troubles and could delay or prevent your Theme Forest template approval.

ThemeForest Authors

If you’re an author for ThemeForest, or any of the Envato marketplaces for that matter, here are a few ways to help the review process of your template.

  1. Include a copy of the font license with the main download files.
  2. Place the font license in a .txt file so it can be quickly read by anyone.
  3. Include a URL to the source of the font in the license text file.
  4. Let the reviewer know where the font license is located and the URL to the source of the font in the “Comments” box under “Message to the Reviewer”.
  5. Include font information such as source URL, author name (credit) and the location of the license in your template documentation for your buyers.

This will help speed up the review of your template and remove any shred of licensing doubt about the font you’re using.

Using Fonts on the Web (Embedding)

Most of the fonts you’ll find online for purchase are licensed only for installation on your local system and are restricted to print media or digital media like PDF’s. If you want to embed a font in your website, you’ll need to get an extended license or find a font with a license that allows it. These are the most common methods for embedding fonts in websites.

  1. sIFR (Scalable Inman Flash Replacement)
  2. Cufón
  3. FLIR (Facelift Image Replacement)
  4. PIR (PHP Image Replacement)

These methods use technologies such as JavaScript, Flash and PHP to embed fonts. The first two require converting the font into JavaScript or Flash while the last two use PHP and JavaScript to generate images from a regular font file on your web server.

A major grey area with sIFR and Cufón is the conversion of the font into another format (flash and javascript). Some fonts that are free, even for commercially distributed uses, prohibit the conversion of the font file into another format. In that case, you would need to get explicit permission from the author to use the font in these ways.

@font-face Embedding (Linking)

I didn’t include the @font-face font embedding method in the list above because it’s a different animal. @font-face doesn’t use PHP, JavaScript or Flash to embed the font. It solely relies on CSS and a compatible browser (see “@font-face and 15 Free Fonts You Can Use Today” for more information).

Information around the web isn’t exactly clear on this but my opinion is that the @font-face method isn’t really “embedding” but instead linking because you’re simply telling the browser where the actual font file is via CSS. This means the font file is directly accessable to your visitors, making this method quite different than the ones listed above.

Even if the font license permits font embedding, it may not permit embedding with @font-face because this method allows direct access to the font file. Microsoft uses the .eot font format (Embedded OpenType) as a solution to this problem. EOT is supposed to respect the flags in the font files for embedding and can be limited to specific domains. Non-IE browsers however, have not adopted this technology and don’t plan to. That means you’ll need to use a .ttf or .otf version of the font for non-IE browsers if you want true cross-browser compatibility.

If you decide to use @font-face, be absolutely, positively sure that the font license allows it. It should specifically state the use of @font-face is permitted and if there are any additional restrictions (ie. give credit somewhere).

NOTE: @font-face is considered a form of distribution because the fonts are directly accessible by visitors.

Packaging Fonts With Products

If you’re an author at Theme Forest and you’ve been trying to use custom fonts in your templates, you may have run into a problem in this area. Packaging fonts with your template can be a massive grey area.

If you’ve visited Font Squirrel you might have noticed they have a pretty nice collection of @font-face kits. However, if you carefully read the license for each font before you use it, you’ll notice that some of them do not permit distributing the font file(s) in any means other than for use with @font-face (or other embedding methods).

That means you cannot include the font file with your template files! You will need to explain to the buyer that they will need to go download the font themselves in order to use it. You could also contact the author and obtain explicit permission to include it in your template download files as an asset with appropriate credit(s). ;-)

sIFR and Cufón

If the font license allows embedding via methods such as sIFR and/or Cufón, the font might NOT allow redistribution of the font file(s). If that’s the case, you CANNOT include the javascript or flash version of the font in your template download files.

I know, you’re probably thinking that’s a little contradictory. The idea is that the license is permitting you to embed the font commercially (as in a business website or similar idea) but the author doesn’t want anyone else distributing the font (as in a website template).

You might be saying, “Yeah, but we’re not distributing the font, just the javascript or flash version”. Just because you’ve changed the format of the font, doesn’t mean you can distribute the new format. It’s still the same font, just in a different format. That means it’s the same idea as @font-face and you’ll need to obtain permission to include the javascript or flash version of the font in your download files.

Distribution

It’s important to understand the difference between different types of distribution. Technically, using sIFR, Cufón and @font-face are all forms of font distribution. Visitors can access and save the flash, javascript or actual font file (depending on the embed method used) in each case.

Some licenses permit the distribution of the font in applications or other packaged works but do not permit the direct distribution of the file itself. It’s the same idea as some image licenses. You can use the image within your template that you intend on distributing but you’re not allowed to distribute the image by itself.

Theme Forest authors won’t really need to worry about this but the better you understand the different types of distribution, the better you’ll understand the digital media licenses that put restrictions on them.

But S/He’s Using It

Just because someone else is using a font in the same way you want to use it and the license appears to permit it but you aren’t quite sure, don’t assume it’s okay. Licenses can be granted on a per user basis so one author may obtain permission to use a font in a Theme Forest template while another author may not be granted permission.

As I’ve said, if the license isn’t clear enough or you just aren’t sure, contact the author of the font and obtain explicit permission.

License Proof

As I said earlier, include a copy of the license with your template download files. This is a good habit to get into regardless of situation though. Licenses can and do change but if you have a copy of the license you were granted, the change won’t apply to you. If you keep a copy of the license for every piece of work you use with the file(s), it’s going to do a lot to protect you legally.

If you obtain permission to use an author’s work via email or other means, that is your license. Do not loose it! Place it in a text file (since it is your license) and keep it with the respective file(s). If you’re distributing the work, include a copy of the license.

Final Thoughts and Summary

Understanding digital media licensing is not easy, especially when it can be different for each type (images, fonts, etc). However, you can simplify the process. When in doubt, contact the author and get explicit permission. Make sure to explain exactly how you would like to use the author’s work so you’re both on the same page.

Quick Overview:

  1. Read the EULA (End User License Agreement) everytime before using the file(s).
  2. Provide as much documentation and proof of the license as you can or as necessary.
  3. Include non-license information such as author, URL, etc.
  4. Javascript and flash versions of a font still apply to distribution restrictions.
  5. The argument, “But s/he’s using it” is not valid and will not save you.
  6. When in doubt, get explicit permission directly from the author.

If you have any questions, please ask so we can clarify and if we don’t know the answer, we can figure it out for later on down the road. :-)


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