A Royalty Free Fonts Breakdown for Graphic Designers

It’s best practice to buy royalty-free fonts for client projects –which you can do at many of the best stock photo sites in business–, but you may not know where to begin – or why that’s the case. In this guide, we’ll breakdown everything you need to know about free fonts, laws, and licenses for commercial-use fonts.

As a designer, you may question the need to buy royalty-free fonts. After all, there are many resources for modern, calligraphy, and other free fonts online. It’s simple enough to download one of those and start designing. 

But can you prove that they’re really free? Do you know where they came from, or what the consequences are if you improperly use a font file in your design projects?

The fact is that many designers don’t fully understand font licenses, and that’s okay. If the fine print isn’t your forte, let’s dig in and hopefully give you a better understanding of font licensing.

Before we get into the details, we have a brief disclaimer: we’re not lawyers. We’re a company that believes in getting you the best information so you can make a decision about where to go next. So, this guide on font licensing isn’t meant as legal advice. It’s just meant to be informative.

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What is a Royalty-Free Font?

A royalty-free font is a font you only have to pay for once. It's denominated like that for being under the Royalty Free license model.

Here’s where it can be confusing: even though they’re called “royalty-free,” that doesn’t mean the license itself is free. It means you pay only one time for the license and do not owe any additional royalties to the font’s creator.

So, after you buy royalty-free fonts, that’s it. You have the right to use them under the royalty-free license you’ve purchased.

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The Difference Between Fonts and Typefaces

Many designers use the terms “font” and “typeface” interchangeably, but the words don’t mean the same thing in a legal sense. Here’s the difference:

  • A Font refers to the software that tells your computer how to display a letter or character.
  • A Typeface refers to the actual shape of each letter, number, or symbol.

For example, Gotham is not a font, but a typeface –a sans serif typeface at that. The term “Gotham” refers to the style and shape of the letters and numbers. However, Gotham Bold or Gotham Black would be considered fonts (sans serif fonts), all part of the same font family.

The software that dictates your computer show a letter in “Gotham” is a font.

The difference is slight, but it’s there. And it matters because of what’s covered by copyright law.

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Are Fonts and Typefaces Protected by Copyright Law?

Well, it depends on the country you live in.

In the United States, fonts are protected by copyright law, but typefaces are not. Typically, files you download online are software or programs, so they fall under the “font” category.

Technically, if you’re located in the U.S., that means you could legally copy the typeface – the style and characters – as long as you don’t copy the software used to make the font. Essentially, you’d have to design every character from scratch, using a typeface as your reference point. It’s about as time-consuming as it sounds.

The U.S. is an outlier when it comes to typeface copyright laws. For example:

  • In Germany, typefaces are automatically covered by copyright law for the first 10 years following publication. After that, you can pay to copyright a typeface for an additional 15 years.
  • The United Kingdom protects typefaces for 25 years.
  • Ireland protects typefaces for 15 years under copyright law.
  • In Japan, typefaces are not covered by any kind of copyright law. They recognize letters as forms of communication as opposed to artistic expression.

As you can see, there is a broad range of coverage when it comes to fonts, typefaces, and copyright law. It’s best to look up your own country’s copyright law to best understand what’s protected.

What are the Differences Between Live, Rasterized, and Outlined Fonts?

Most licenses will sometimes refer to three font types: live, rasterized and outlined. Knowing the differences between the three will help you understand what you can or cannot do with the fonts you’ve downloaded.

Live Fonts

Here are the characteristics of a live font:

  • When used online, a live font has the ability to be highlighted, copied, and pasted, as you can do to the text in this article.
  • Nothing about the font has been changed, so it’s in its original state.
    Here’s how a live font appears when being used:

Live Font > A Royalty Free Fonts Breakdown for Graphic Designers

Rasterized and Outlined Fonts

Here are the characteristics of a rasterized or outlined font:

  • Rasterized and outlined fonts are unable to be highlighted, copied, or pasted because they have been transformed into graphics.
  • They are no longer text, but images, so they have been changed from their original state.
  • Here’s how an outlined font appears when in use:

Rasterised Font > A Royalty Free Fonts Breakdown for Graphic Designers

Rasterized text is anything that has been transformed into a pixel-based image like JPG or PNG, while outlined fonts are transformed into vector-based images like AI, EPS, or SVG files.

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What Are Serif and Sans Serif Fonts?

This is more about style than licensing, but still worth mentioning while we're discussing royalty-free fonts. After all, you are here to find the best possible fonts for your designs!

The difference between serif fonts and sans serif fonts is clearly given by their names. A serif is a decorative stroke added at the end of a letter stem. Fonts that have this decorative element are serif fonts, and those that don't have it are, you guessed, sans (French for without) serif. It's that simple.

Of course, these two categories are both populated with thousands of font styles and even subcategories. For example, slab serif fonts are those where the serif is thick and block-like.

Proportional or Monospaced?

Continuing with style details, fonts can also divide according to the space each character takes on the text line. Proportional fonts are those where each character (also referred to as glyph) can take different spaces, according to the proportions of each letter shape. Monospaced fonts are the opposite, as all the characters take up the same exact space regardless of their shape.

This includes all glyphs, even ligatures –when two letters symbols are merged into one to create a single character.

What’s the Difference Between Personal and Commercial-Use Licenses?

The majority of free fonts you can find on Google and download come with a personal-use license. This means you can use it for anything you won’t financially gain from, like your own stationery or a school project.
A commercial-use license allows you to use the font for any work from which do gain financially: brochures, business cards, logotypes, your wedding invitations, and the like.

When you purchase a royalty-free font, you can use that font for as many commercial projects as you like, which makes it a good long-term investment. Book covers, signage, social media ads, and so much more.

If you are creating work for a paying client, you must have a commercial use license of the font you are using. When you buy royalty-free fonts, you know what font license you have.

Can I Use a Free Font in a Logo Design?

If you are getting paid to create a logo, you need to have a commercial-use license of a font to use it.

If you happen to find a font you love from a reputable source that’s free and comes with a commercial-use license, then, by all means, use it.

However, these are difficult to come by. Even the best free fonts resources usually come under a form of Creative Commons license or under the Public Domain.

Free fonts that come with commercial-use licenses are often hard to read or highly stylized, what we call scrip fonts (think of cursive or handwritten font style). This isn’t great for logos, which needs to be simple and easy to read in order to be effective.

Sometimes free fonts don’t include numbers, symbols, or uppercase letters. In the worst cases, they’re attached to damaging computer viruses.

Your best bet is to buy royalty-free fonts for your logo projects so you don’t have to worry about an off-looking text, trying to pass an all-lowercase letters brand as cool, or potential lawsuits that could come from illegally downloading fonts.

The good news is that most fonts are quite affordable to license and there is a large variety of styles available. From blackletter classics and vintage fonts to art deco or edgy grunge aesthetic, don’t be afraid to look around for the style you need.

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How Much Will a Commercial License Cost?

A commercial font license can cost anywhere from a less than a dollar to a few hundred dollars.

This depends on where you source the font from and on the specific typography you want to purchase a license for. More popular fonts like Gotham or Helvetica will cost more, while more intricate or newer fonts will be less to buy.

Can You Give or Sell a Font to a Client?

The short answer: no.

The long answer: you can create a logo, or another marketing material using a font you have a commercial-use license for. But, you do not have permission to give or sell that font to a client.

If you do send a font to a client, they’re now illegally using it for their business without understanding that it isn’t legal. Even though you are permitted to use this font because you’ve paid, it doesn’t mean your client has that privilege, too.

Here’s an example: let’s say you use Adobe InDesign to create a poster for your client, but the client doesn’t have Adobe InDesign. You send them the software for free so they have the ability to open the poster. Now they’re in possession of illegally transferred software.

Do you see the issue?

Instead, you can send a client the link to purchase the font for their own use.

Where to Buy Royalty-Free Fonts for Graphic Design

There are many reputable sources you can buy royalty-free fonts from for your graphic design needs:

Go Royalty-Free

If you want to be sure of the license you have and use the most cost-effective method for fonts, buy royalty-free fonts. There are thousands to choose from that will fit right in your budget, allowing you to create bold, beautiful work for your clients.

Happy designing!

Header image credit: ndanko / Photocase.com – All rights reserved

Amos Struck

I am a publisher and entrepreneur in the stock imagery field. I focus on providing knowledge and solutions for buyers, contributors and agencies, aiming at contributing to the growth and development of the industry. I am the founder and editor of Stock Photo Press, one of the largest networks of online magazines in the industry. I am the founder of Microstock Expo, the only conference dedicated to the microstock segment. I created several software solutions in stock photography like WordPress plugins. Plus I am a recurrent speaker at Photokina Official Stage, and an industry consultant at StockPhotoInsight. I am passionate about technology, marketing and visual imagery.

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