You don’t buy fonts, you license the right to use them. Different designers and companies license fonts in vastly different ways and you have to read the license to really know what’s up.

Font is central to brand identity. Many large or long-standing companies depend upon fonts that have been in use for decades. Examples include Helvetica NeueFrutiger or Akzidenz Grotesk. Until fairly recently, if a company wanted to use them on their web site, there were only clunky options. Today, these fonts can be served just like HTML files are. The licensing can be confusing, though, so I’m going to give you an overview here.

Leased Not Sold

The first thing to know is that fonts, like original illustration or music, are not sold by the artist – they’re licensed. This means you pay for usage for a certain period of time and/or number of web site page views. Often, you must also serve them only one web site.

Google Fonts

Google Fonts are always free. They’re published under a license that allows them to be used on any web site, whether personal or commercial – Google requires this before they’ll serve the font. Google gets more data on web sites, which is its stock in trade, and designers get exposure. Usually only part of a font family will be released by a designer on Google.

For instance, the ubiquitous Museo font (seriously, take a good look at it and you’ll soon see it everywhere you go), has five weights, three are free and two are paid.

Why not use free fonts all the time? Well, you won’t find Helvetica or Frutiger there. (They’re listed but are just links to the commercial sites where you have to pay for them.) Some of the fonts are great, but I’ve found many are lacking accent characters or just don’t seem to render well, as compared to commercial options.

For many small sites, they’re perfect, especially if you stick with the more venerable families like Museo, Open Sans, or Roboto (the last two were commissioned by Google, so they’ve got all of the parts that you expect in commercial fonts).

Subscription Model is the original leader in premium web fonts. It was started by the creators of Google Analytics in 2009, and then was bought by Adobe in 2011. I have a subscription to Adobe CreativeCloud, which gives me Typekit with full access to web fonts.

But once I’m done with design, I’m not using these fonts, my clients are. So I need to make sure they’re set up with their own license.

This is usually easy with the free version of Typekit, which includes a set of 978 fonts at this writing. If I’m starting from scratch, or I’ve been told I can deviate from my clients’ brand fonts, I can design to this limited set and the client can have free fonts.

Type kit’s subscription model is very consistent. It’s based on access to particular fonts for the web and the free version is limited to one web site – perfect for most of my clients. If they need fonts not in the free list, or they need them for more than one site, TypeKit plans start at $49.99/year.

Pay-Once Model, another popular source, has a few different licensing methods, based on what the font designer requires. But most of their fonts are a pay-once model. You pay for a specific font or family at a particular number of pageviews per month. As long as you don’t go over those page views, you only pay once. This font uses that model.

Pay for Page Views

Linotype and FontSpring (and some MyFonts typefaces) use a very different license structure. You pay a flat rate for a set number of page views. For instance, Avenir Next Ultralight is $89 for 250,000 page views. For tiny clients who might run 4,000 page views per month, this means that the license would run out in about 6 years. A larger client running 50,000 page views per month would run through their allotment in 6 months, so they might want to up it to one or two million. You always pay less per view, the more you buy.

I checked with the company to see what happens when you run out of views, and they said, “We send out email notifications when 90% of the page views limit are reached and again when 100% are reached. After the limit has expired we grant our customers a grace period of 7 days.”

Because, what you don’t want is for your fonts to go down at noon on Cyber Monday, scaring away 10% of the site sales because it looks like it got hacked.

Pay Once For Everything

One of my favorite licenses comes from, where you pay once for desktop (installing the font on your computer so you can use it in an application like Word or Photoshop), web, everything. An example of their simple, plain-English license is here. Best of all, LostType has some of the most modern, fun fonts around.

Want to know more? Get in touch with us, or comment below and tell us your favorite web font service.