An increasing collection of fonts are being released for free, but the majority of fonts require a license. For any given font, it's possible to find many versions online, both legal and not. There are always places willing to sell you a font, as well as sites from which to download free version. Obviously I don't want to pirate a font that's within copyright, but I also don't want to give money to a charletan instead of the copyright holder, or pay for a font that's actually free.

How can I establish:

  • Who the copyright holder for a given font actually is?
  • Whether two fonts with the same or similar name and design are actually the same?
  • Whether a font can be legally used for free or not?
  • Where best to buy from?

Edit: to pick an example font at random, try Clarendon. It was designed in 1845 by a now-defunct foundry, was registered under Britain's new patent laws and entered the public domain 3 years later. Even the Mickey Mouse act doesn't last for 167 years.

If you google it, several of the first results offer the font as a free download. But also in there are MyFonts, FontShop and Identifont, which say the font is owned by Adobe and/or Linotype, and encourage you to buy it. I've yet to see any font that Identifont doesn't say you should purchase.

So who is to be believed?


2 Answers 2


Copyright laws are fuzzy to begin with, and vary from region to region. When it comes to type design, it's even more wild and varied.

For instance, in the US, you can't copyright a typeface design. Some typeface designs are patented by their designers, but design patents are not that widely used, and they last only 15 years anyway. You can design a typeface, and if you don't patent it, I can redraw it, and then I can legally sell the same design under a different name.

The digital file, on the other hand, can be copyrighted, as it's considered a computer program. And the name of the font is protected as a trademark.

Then there is the historical issues. Historically, very little attention or care was given to the protecting of typeface designs. One foundry would design a typeface, create it in lead or wood, then that face would be come popular, then another foundry would copy it so they could sell it. They'd then be sold under different names. (For instance, that's how we ended up with Helvetica and Swiss 721).

Then came digital type and you'd see the opposite happen. One foundry would design a typeface and release it, then let another foundry license it. But that other foundry would change the name. So same legitimate design, different names. (For instance, that's how we ended up with Helvetica and Nimbus Sans).

But then there's also the reverse--different foundries releasing slightly different designs under the same name. For instance, Bodoni. Each foundry will have their own version of it.

And then there's just the practice of re-releasing existing type designs. You see 'revivals' or 'inspired by' or 'updates of' classical or existing faces. The line between 'homage' and 'copying' is further blurred with that.

And then there's historical spats where legitimate foundries are accused of ripping-off legitimate designers (kind of the RIAA model). So you can buy a legitimately licensed typeface, but the original designer might not be seeing a penny of that.

So, what to do?

Well, I'd suggest never using a digital face that doesn't have a license file with it.

Beyond that, the type design and distribution world isn't all THAT big. Over time, you'll get to know the legitimate foundries and hear stories of ones to stay away from. To make it really easy, you could stick with MyFonts.com. They offer type from a large number of foundries.

  • Re 'Helvetica/Swiss 721' case - didn't ITC continue this practice into the digital age?
    – e100
    Commented May 23, 2012 at 18:48
  • 1
    "For instance, in the US, you can't even copyright a typeface design." Instead, a designer can register a typeface design for 15 years with the US Patent and Trademark Office. Commented May 20, 2015 at 17:29
  • 1
    @tepples that is true. One can try and obtain a design patent for a particular typeface design. Apparently this is not an easy nor cheap process, though. As such, it's not all that widely used.
    – DA01
    Commented May 20, 2015 at 17:43

This is probably fairly easy (most of the time) on a case-by-case basis, but probably difficult to provide some kind of catch-all advice.

I'd try to hunt down the type foundry, view the typeface on their website, then click links from there to either download the font for free or purchase it.

It's also probably worth noting the difference between a typeface (the design/family) and a font (the digital file used for distribution). A typeface may be out of copyright, but a font probably won't be. This is because the font is software, and it might be quite new.

A great article on the topic: Is it a font or a typeface?

  • 2
    What about fonts that were commissioned by a specific client, like Bell Gothic? Are they owned by the foundry or the client? Commented May 22, 2012 at 13:10
  • That's up to the deal between the foundry and the client. Bell Gothic is owned by Linotype, right? Commented May 23, 2012 at 0:28

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