How to Use Type Legally: Part 1

I have always had a love affair with typography and take pride in the fact that I can identify and match type easily. For that reason and more, I believe typefaces are the key to a great logo and I think it’s important to use them properly. Unfortunately, those who use type regularly may be unaware that they’re doing so illegally, and this may increase their chances for potential lawsuits as a result.

In this two-part blog series, I’d like to shed some light on the matter and make the legalities of type usage clearer, especially for those who use type in professional projects like myself. This portion of the blog will provide some background knowledge on intellectual property protections for type and will outline three font licenses available for type connoisseurs.

It’s important to note that I am not a lawyer. This post was written from my own perspective and is a reflection on how I interrupted my research. If you have questions, I recommend contacting the type foundry responsible for the typeface in question or a lawyer for further legal clarifications.


Typeface vs. Font

As per usual, let’s get some definitions straightened out first. Back in the day, the terms typeface and font referred to metal blocks that were aligned by hand to create layouts. This process was called analog printing. Nowadays, the term typeface has been phased out of usage within the design community. Some experts have called it a generational preference since the difference has become irrelevant due to the rise of desktop publishing. (Source.)

Whatever your preference may be, I think this distinction should be explored to better understand type protection. With that said, let’s take a look at what these terms mean today.



A typeface is a set of characters (numbers, letters, and symbols) that share common design features. Each typeface has a specific set of guidelines that determine the way a character appears, whether it’s on a page or a computer monitor. This term is also referred to as a font family. Now that I’ve thoroughly confused you, just remember, type like Bodoni, Helvetica, or the dreaded Comic Sans are all considered typefaces.



If a typeface is comprised of design elements, think of a font as a technical guide/program that tells the printer or computer display how a letter or character is supposed to be shown. (Source.) As soon as a typeface file gets put to use within the Adobe Creative Suite, Microsoft Office, or anything other program, it’s safe to say it’s considered a font.

Still confused? Fast Company had a great way of summarizing the distinction here. Just remember: “A font is what you use, a typeface is what you see.”

An Intro To Type Protections

Now that we’ve cleared up the difference between a typeface and a font, here’s where it gets put to use for legality purposes. Let’s move on with the three types of protections used for artistic and intellectual property and how they relate to type.



A patent is normally used to protect inventions, but the U.S. has a variety of lesser-known patents, like a design patent. The first was created in 1842 for George Bruce to protect his collection of display typefaces (source). Patents are considered the strongest system of protection, but you’ll find that a design patent is rarely to used for type.

Lasts: 14 years upon grant date. It has the shortest life-span of protection in the U.S.

Covers: The ornamental and visual, like typeface designs.

Limits: Will only protect the exact form of your original artwork. If someone were to use this same piece and alter it a little, there is no infringement. This protection is also pretty expensive.



A trademark is a country-specific form of protection for a word, name, logo, design or phrase that distinguishes a specific product in the marketplace. Typefaces like Times Roman and Helvetica are just a few examples of trademarked names.

Lasts: Can be eternal as long as the proper registration maintenance documents are filed on time. For more information, check the United States patent and trademark website.

Covers: The name of the typeface and the name of the type foundry.

Limits: Can’t protect the actual typeface design.



A copyright is the most commonly used protection of intellectual property. It gives the creator an exclusive right to the use and distribution of their creative work. This law differs by country, but a copyright in the U.S. can automatically be used from the moment an original piece is created unless other arrangements were made prior to the start of the project. When it comes to the protection of typefaces, the copyright can be divided into two parts: protection for the type design; and the font in which it’s implemented (source). The U.S., however, only allows protection for the latter.

Lasts: Creator’s life + 70 years.

Covers: Original works and font programs.

Limits: In 1974, Congress specifically eliminated the copyright protection for the abstract design of typefaces. This basically means that fonts are covered by copyright law as computer software, but the design of a typeface is not. Since then this has been upheld in cases like the infamous 1997 Adobe v. Southern Software, Inc. ruling. (Source.)

The End-User License Agreement

Since there are limitations placed on copyright law protecting the design of typefaces, many typographers and type foundries create a contract between the manufacturer and purchaser, establishing the purchaser’s term of usage (source). This is called the end-user license agreement (EULA). In other words, when you download a “free” or licensed font, you are automatically agreeing with the terms set forth in the EULA.

Purchasing the Right Font License

Every time you purchase and/or download a typeface, know that there’s a EULA attached. This specifies how you’re allowed to use the typeface, what medium you’re allowed to use it on, and how many licenses a purchase gives you. On type e-commerce sites, there are multiple licenses you can choose to buy from. Here’s a brief selection and overview of the more common types:


Desktop Fonts

Desktop font licenses are most commonly used for commercial print jobs like business stationery, newspapers, magazines, and some even permit usage within a logo. A few people have stooped as low as using this license for web design purposes through modern coding practices. It’s not only unethical, but it’s essentially stealing from the typographer or foundry and violating the EULA.


Web Fonts

Web fonts are exactly what you think, they’re fonts modified and enhanced specifically for the web. They improve readability and personalization on screen in a variety of digital environments and come in two varieties: fonts made specifically for the web, and desktop fonts optimized for the web. Whichever you choose, remember that consistent and uniform typography will go a long way in your branding campaign.


Embedded Fonts

If you’ve ever received a PDF, ebook, or newsletter in the past, you might recall that it was once required to have a copy of the font before you could read or print the document. If you didn’t own a copy, you simply had to purchase the font or ask the sender to change it to something you already owned. Once the Portable Document Format (PDF) came to be it became easier to embed fonts. Today, typographers modify typeface designs and sell embedded font licenses. This welcomed solution simply embeds fonts within files before they are sent.

Those who purchase this type of license can also use it on applications, software, and web servers through CSS. Many embedded fonts are easier to read, available across all browsers (even Internet Explorer), and aid in design flexibility. Most importantly, they are 100% search engine optimization (SEO) friendly.

So which license is right for you and your project? Stay tuned for the second part of this series on Thursday.