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Type as business: why are font licenses so varied?

How do type foundries come up with their approach to licensing policy? What has essentially changed on the licensing market over the last few years, and why can’t all licenses be the same?

October 24, 2019

How do type foundries come up with their approach to licensing policy? What has essentially changed on the licensing market over the last few years, and why can’t all licenses be the same?

Interviews by Alexander Polivanov

Sergey Bobryshev

Commercial Director, Paratype

From a professional point of view, the licenses offered by international font manufacturers do not differ greatly. They are merely adjusted to comply with the legislation of the countries in which the manufacturers operate. The most notable difference is that in Russia, in several European and some former Soviet Union countries, both graphic design and software are legally protected. In some other countries (the USA, Germany, Great Britain, and so on), only software is. In this sense, Russian foundries are more protected than, for example, American ones. It’s another matter that nowadays, the degree of “similarity” of objects (not only fonts) can reach the “molecular”, i.e. digital level. Rather than merely comparing font design, we need to examine the control points on a vector outline of glyph. Just printing several glyphs cannot guarantee 100% accurate identification

Our licenses take into account the different purposes of using fonts and are declarative in nature. Technical progress never stands still — when we released this or that font, we had no idea that mobile applications would appear or, say, electronic books. This type of use of fonts simply did not exist. If you have a license for one type of use, such as desktop, and you want to use fonts in electronic publications, you just need to purchase a new license for these rights. Companies have the opportunity to monitor those who use the license for other purposes.

For professional community design studios, we provide the opportunity to try our fonts for free. So that it doesn’t seem as if fonts are being downloaded from sites where stolen content is offered, we accompany the download with a license that is valid for a limited time — say, two weeks or a month. Under this license, designers can use several fonts, prepare mock-ups for a client, after which the most suitable option is chosen. Then the studio buys a permanent license for itself and for the client, and agrees to delete the remaining fonts after the expiration of the temporary license.

On the one hand, Paratype, focuses on the types of font licenses existing in the world, and on the other hand, takes into account domestic legislation and the needs of our potential customers.


Ilya Ruderman, CSTM Fonts

The store distributes licenses according to the classic desktop/web/app system. This means that in fact, users themselves determine which license they need, and thereby identify their range of interests. If, for example, they are interested in bitmap graphics, we sell them a desktop license. If they’re interested in using fonts online, we sell the web, and so on. When users come to us, we often ask clarifying questions in order to alter something or to help them with suggestions.

In our new store we use the package model. All font files are transferred at a time and then licensing only occurs according to the scale of the project and to the scale of use.

The market contains a large number of participants, developers and studios. This makes it possible for each of them to come up with their own simple mechanisms around the basic idea of “a font needs to be bought,” in an attempt to find the most convenient option for the user. This may be a subscription, or some kind of package model — there are many different experiments. Subscription tends to be offered by large libraries — we cannot afford this type of model. Besides, it would be pointless for the user, because we don’t release updates that often here.

Theoretically, it’s possible that all market participants will come to an agreement and everyone will offer the same license. Are we close to this? Not really. Everyone is experimenting and trying new things. Now the market demands free trial versions and the subsequent purchase of a license. Accordingly, companies invent models with which changing from the trial version to a paid one is as easy and convenient for the purchaser as possible.


Christian Schwartz

Commercial Type

When we started out, we had to make a decision between selling individual styles or only selling packages, as many foundries were doing at the time. We soon realized this was actually a bigger philosophical choice — between very granular licensing, starting at a lower price, versus more inclusive licensing that would be priced a bit higher. We decided to make the basic license as inexpensive as we could afford to, and follow an** ’à la carte’ **licensing model, so customers wouldn’t feel like they were being forced to pay for things they didn’t need. This has definitely made things more complicated, but it suited our main customers — publications and small graphic design studios — when we started the company. Perhaps it would have been smarter to unify our licenses at a higher price point, but we wanted to err on the side of making our typefaces relatively more accessible.


Valery Golyzhenkov

Letterhead Studio

In general, a license is the result of the legal formalisation of the author’s wishes to provide the rights to use something. The author focuses on the type of relationship that already exists and dominates the market, because this is what tends to be understood and accepted by the public.

There is the notion of an “end-user license”, which we inherited from large font companies. These companies behave something like a major music label that pays some musicians, say, 10 million per disk, and then earns, say, 250 million on it. There was a similar story with fonts, hence the formal approach to licensing: they were sold at one price for use on three computers, and at another for use on ten.

Now the situation has changed. Authors are faced with the fact that this standard license is not enough, because it is issued not for a font design, but for a file, and does not regulate actions with this file. As a result, if the font is used, say, in a logo, then the authors receive nothing. This is unlike, say, what happens with the authors of photographs. About ten years ago restrictions began to arise, for example, regarding the use of a font in the design of certain products.

Many foundries are now beginning to offer trial versions of the font, which have a limited codepage and, accordingly, limited use rights. A designer can access the font for free, they can show it to a client, prepare drafts, sketches, and initial designs. However if the project begins to be commercially implemented, then the license conditions are completely different.

Varied types of use are not always associated with different costs. It might have been said previously that so that a font used in say, office programs with different monitor resolution worked decently, special manual hinting needed to be developed. This could not be done by a computer, which meant a lot of man-hours and effort. Of course this was expensive. But now monitors have retina display and this all becomes unnecessary. Any font of any subtlety, of any complexity, or smoothness looks great — no problem. Television has also become digital, there is also no longer a need to be so cautious about the quality of the font on the screen.


Peter Biľak


Typeface licences are similar to licenses for other more complex products. How much should a car cost? Well it depends on many things about the car, its brand, its engine, navigation, infotainment system, safety features, sunroof, etc. It makes sense that if you choose simple options, you pay less, and if you want more, you pay more. It is the same with fonts. We have a basic license, but when someone requires more, we have modular licensing, where you simply choose what you want, and we show you what are the costs of the extras.


Gayaneh Baghdasaryan


We are guided by the rules adopted in the market — they are by and large similar to many copyright holders. We make our own small adjustments.

At the same time, it is important to respond to various changes in life and adapt the licensing policy in reaction to them. For example, with the development of social networks, font owners began to offer a special license to use the font in social networks. This is just one example of adaptation to a changing world. According to the old licensing rules, using a font in a one-day “stories” video would have necessitated the purchase of a video license, which is unreasonably expensive for that type of use. The prices for video licenses were formed at a time when the technology for creating video was not as affordable as it is now, and video was an expensive form of media produced by pros — for example, a movie, a TV show or video advertising. Now, of course, the video format is used very widely, and font designers need to respond to these type of changes. We have also begun to sell a license for social network use.

Choosing a font license might be compared to choosing a trip. You choose the dates and duration of the tour, place, airline, hotel type, hotel star rating, type of food, view from the window. Then you include options: something close to the shoreline, Wi-Fi, a private bathroom, refrigerator, kettle, carpet, and so on. You put a tick in the required fields, and the system calculates the cost. If it turns out to be too pricey you can lower the rating of the hotel, fly with stopover, and rethink your desire for ocean views. Of course, this is not a perfect comparison, but, the same way we can’t easily say how much a trip costs, it is also impossible to say “how much a font costs.”

We try to build a licensing policy in such a way that a student can do a term paper with a font or just a postcard for their grandma, and a large corporation also has the opportunity to use the font. There cannot be the same price for everyone: a student and a corporation must pay different sums, because the scale of use of the font is not comparable.

The desire to find a fair price and to enable everyone who wants to legally use the font to do so leads to a complex licensing policy. If the licenses were simple, and the price of the license was the same for everyone, then this price would be quite steep. I might add that I personally believe that licenses should be free for designers, but the world is not ready for this, we still have a way to go.

Like many other copyright holders, we draw a distinction between the use of a font in a logo — we have a specific license for this. The peculiarity of a logo is that its replication is in no way limited and is not controlled by the author, so the cost of a logo license depends on the type of business. The logo for a hairdressing salon and a logo for a television channel assume wildy differing volumes of replication — it cannot cost the same. In addition, if one television channel has bought a logo license from a foundry, then a second television channel in the same territory will never make their logo using the same font. However another hairdressing salon might very well make use of the font. Thus, the TV channel that is the first to buy my logo license pays for some kind of exclusivity.

There is one more nuance in regards to the logo license — the license may be with or without the right for trademark registration. If the trademarks of homogeneous products are too similar due to same font used, then the second trademark will not be registered. Accordingly, with each registration of a trademark, the economic attractiveness of the font is reduced, and this should be offset by the cost of the license.


See also:
How much does it cost to make a font?
What is the difference between free and paid fonts?