If most folks think of fonts at all (even we designers who do spend a lot of time thinking about type), it is only to note what is available in the font menu or what looks nice in a certain usage.

Type painted on a rusty surface, photo by Scott Rodgerson
Type is all around us. But fonts are licensed software.

But each font is actually licensed software. That means you don’t “own” the fonts you have, but only license the use of the software. (Curiously, copyright law is also strange in this regard, and doesn’t apply to font shapes—known as glyphs—only the software that renders them.)

Those licenses have all sorts of restrictions built in and as a publisher, you should understand those restrictions.

In the context of book design, the most important limitation regards sharing a font. Even if your designer hands over their design files, they might not be able to give you the fonts used to typeset your book. Depending on who purchased the font(s) and how they were licensed, you may need to buy your own copy.

The other common gotcha is that the font’s license may be restricted in usage scope. Perhaps the fine print says it is only for personal projects (common on free fonts), but not commercial projects. Similarly, a font used for the creation of a print book may not be allowed for an eBook, or is limited to subsetting.

Rightly protecting their rights, font designers and the foundry’s that represent them are increasingly enforcing these rules. 

Font Sourcing

Aren’t fonts free anyhow?

Free fonts are around, but tend to be less complete in their character sets, and less well refined in their design. Especially when it comes to the spacing between letter pairs (known as kerning). Be wary of free fonts for these reasons, and only use carefully.

This includes the “free” fonts available from Google, which is otherwise a great source of font samples and is frequently used for web development. But they are also available for download.

As mentioned above, be sure to double-check that the free font is free for commercial use as well. Many aren’t.

In my designs, if I do use a free font, I would only use it sparingly, for a title or headlines where I can easily review my typesetting letter by letter.

Adobe Fonts

A common source of fonts for designers is the Adobe fonts.adobe.com collection, included with Adobe’s CC software subscription. These are “free” in that they are included for the duration of your subscription, and “universal” in the sense that anyone with a CC subscription can access them.

But there are some pitfalls as a designer I know discovered late in 2020:

I just got back to an identity project that got put on hold during Covid: The Early Days. The design portion of this project is signed off. We’re resuming now, I open the files and my fonts won’t load. I go to Adobe Fonts and it is not there. I contact a human (I think) and s/he tells me “I’m afraid the font has been discontinued, it can no longer be used.”

Discontinued? Yes! Just like you or I, Adobe doesn’t own any of the 3rd party fonts they provide through their fonts service either—and those license agreements are subject to change. Exactly this situation happened in the summer of 2020, for the first time since forever. InDesign Secrets reported that as of June 15, 2020, Font Bureau and Carer & Cone have removed their fonts from Adobe’s licensing agreement.

Now, this story has has happy ending because whatever font that designer was using should still be available directly from the foundry; they’ll just have to buy a license now (for themselves, and for their client). Which, to be fair, for branding work is probably good practice anyhow.


The other gotcha they don’t mention: not only can fonts be removed, but they can be updated without notice. While this isn’t common, it is not unheard of for kerning tables to be tweaked and adjusted between font revisions. And like any software, fonts do have version numbers, I know of no software that tracks version numbers of the fonts in use.

Scary stuff for long term projects. Why? Imagine an entire book has been completed, typeset, proofread and ready for printing. But along comes a font update that slightly shifts the spacing between characters. Mostly this doesn’t matter. But over the course of a book, if you are unlucky, perhaps the spacing affects the line width just enough that a paragraph reflows. Maybe that adds or removes a line from the page, causing all subsequent pages to reflow. All the careful checks of typesetting are out the window, and the book needs to be rechecked!

This is why I recommend actually purchasing fonts for projects that will have a long term nature, such as books liked to be edited and reprinted in later years.

What about sending files to printers?

With all this concern about fonts, you might wonder: how do you send files to a printer? After all, they would need the connect fonts (and correct version) to be able to print, right?

Yes. But unlike your Microsoft Word document, or even the InDesign design document, normally the files submitted to printers include all the fonts that are used in the document.

But why doesn’t that violate the limitation of font redistribution? Well, it is a grey area, but basically the fonts encoded into the print ready PDF document are only usable for the document in which they are included, and cannot be separated from the document or used elsewhere.

So it is an accepted practice that this is considered fair use, and doesn’t violate the font license agreement. After all, if it did, the font wouldn’t be much use, would it?

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