Hey, you were warned....Hey, you were warned....

This is part two of a two-part article series.

Last week I wrote about the practical reasons of why you shouldn’t install 2000-plus fonts into your OS’ font folder and why you should let the work be handled by a font manager instead.

Now, we’re going to talk about the bigger problem: the legal and ethical issues regarding this.

Quite frankly, these are fonts that you likely don’t have the license for and trying to license all 2000-plus of them is not going to happen.  Downloading this thing and keeping it is a legal minefield. 

Okay, maybe your copy of Microsoft Office and Windows and Adobe Creative Cloud came with those copies and thus you have a license for those.  But do you have one for San Francisco and New York (generally, Mac-only fonts)?  The reverse is true as well: if you’re downloading them on a Mac, you might have the license for San Francisco and New York.  But what about Calibri, Tahoma and especially Arial?  I need not even get into the Linux side of the house there.

When I spoke to the guy who had offered the 2000-font download, his response was this.  Since that initial conversation, by the way, he has deleted all traces of the conversation from his site, but thankfully I copied it elsewhere:

bro, i don’t know about other me and my designer friends need these type of fonts pack.

And that should say everything you need to know right there.  For those of you who aren’t keeping tabs, let me break it down for you.

I’m a type designer.  While I do make free fonts, I also make pay fonts (in fact, I recently just did a Clarendon revival; in the interests of fairness, however, I’m not going to put a link here as this isn’t about self-promotion).  It takes me anywhere from a month to a month and a half to make the glyphs, clean them up, validate the font, make the different weights, check kerning and tracking, set up ligatures and other open type details, etc.

While I’m not doing fonts for fame and fortune (who is?) the fact is, all the hardware and software cost money.  And yes, there are free font suites out there and there are free art suites to draw the glyphs in.  Is hardware free?  Is good software free (and by “good” I don’t mean that in an abstract sense, I mean the one that is best for the designer?  After all, I pay for Adobe Illustrator instead of freely downloading Inkscape because I prefer the experience and workflow of the former)?  And I use a gaming desktop and laptop for my work because of all the various art and writing I do, so I need that power (heck, I even have Steam installed for some apps…but can’t remember the last time I gamed on anything aside from my PS4 and my phone!)

All of that costs money.  And last time I checked, I am not blessed with a trust fund or a lottery-winning ticket, so I sell my fonts in the hopes that it will pay for those new Huion drawscreens I need to get for both myself and my wife (she’s a professional illustrator who also struggles with her art “going travelling”…but more on that later.)

As a web designer (like the designers above), I get that it costs money to do all this.  I also get that you make money doing so for clients.  But let me note a few things:

  1. It is patently disingenuous to state that you need those fonts.  What you’re really saying is, “bro, I need to be paid for my work…but I don’t feel others need to be.”  Seriously?   As a designer, whenever I’ve done anything for a client, if I don’t have the font, I do one of three things: I either design a similar font (note that this is legal only in some jurisdictions and you might not have that option), I go buy the font (always legal in any jurisdiction), or I explain to my client why that particular font is not a good option (in which case, it’s the client’s choice to work with some other font.)  As a designer, you’re getting paid for your work and you should want that work to continue.  Part of that means you’ll have to make investments in your business like hardware, marketing, and of course, software (like pay fonts.)

    Have you ever had a client skip out on all that work you’ve done or try to lowball you after it’s complete?  Were you (justifiably) angry about that?  If the answer is yes…then why are you trying to do it to a fellow designer?

    I spoke to a bunch of fellow type designers on this issue and one response, from Ray Larabie, stood out to me.  He said, “There's nothing to indicate to the customer that what they're downloading is a pirated font. When people download them, they have no idea that a "pay" version exists. I think those sites lead directly to lost sales. Some people who download those fonts would have been willing to pay for them if they knew they weren't legit.”

    Now, while he did also state that sometimes these pirated fonts lead to a designer buying a paid font (and I agree with him on that), the onus is on the designer to do so.
  2. You don’t care if your clients get in trouble.  As I mentioned above, some of those font designs, in some jurisdictions, are protected by IP law.  If your client doesn’t have a direct license, they’re counting on you to have it.  If you don’t, well, an old saying from my Navy days comes to mind: “Stand by to stand by”.  People can – and have – gotten in trouble over that.  Don’t believe me?  Ask NBCUniversal if that $3.5 million was well spentThere’s even a neat little list over at Quora.  Could your client – and you – get nailed for that?  Do you really want to take that chance?
  3. Free doesn’t always mean zero cost.  As I mentioned, I make free fonts…but those fonts are typically free for personal use only.  A designer using them for a client isn’t free.  The same goes as well for anyone using system fonts: they’re free for personal (and maybe limited commercial) purposes.  They’re free for you to use on your computer.  They’re free for you to use in designing that cool logo or project for your client.  They’re not free to automatically do whatever you want with them.

    In a separate conversation from the above, designer Henning von Vogelsang had this to say (it was long, so I edited somewhat for brevity):

    “…It’s not that they don’t know that commercial fonts exist and people buy them, but it is widely considered legitimate to just copy any font and convert it to any format you’d need. I think this stems from the culture of freemium services and hustling – the idea that “free” gets you everywhere these days, and whoever pays for anything is either stupid or doesn’t get it. So to a certain degree, there’s even pride in this culture, which in itself has also often been criticised.

    “…I have been advising against the practice of uploading fonts you don’t have the license for, and I have been trying to explain that typefaces are both, a property of thought and (as fonts) also software—they are distributed with a license. Unsurprisingly, this doesn’t have much effect on those users. And I am not saying it’s all of them. I’m sure to some it’s a new concept and they try to respect it as much they can. Some I talked to switched to different fonts, ‘free’ alternatives they found through Google, Font Squirrel and The League Of Movable Fonts. But even if this group is just a small sample of the public, it is my impression that it somewhat reflects how the public thinks about fonts and licenses. In short, fonts are generally perceived as something ubiquitous that is available for everyone, just like ‘free’ Gmail accounts.”

    Note that it’s not talking about pirate sites (that’s a whole different ball of wax).  In many ways, it’s a parallel to my first point.  These fonts cost, yet people don’t perceive the value in making sure the creators are recompensed.

    To use another example unrelated to fonts, I mentioned that my wife is an illustrator and comic artist (Ayne’s commented here on wataridori… many a time).  She often has her art stolen and used without her permission and when she’s complained, she gets the typical answer about “exposure”.  Not only is it disingenuous and deceitful, it’s also demoralizing.  You care about your creations, but not enough to make sure that there are future creations out there?  I have known talented artists who have left the field because they got burned too many times.  It is hard enough to do this without people consigning art and creativity to a far-off backwater where people only “do it for fun”.

    Or to quote a random comment I saw on DeviantArt the other day: “Art used to mean something…why should I bother if people think it should pay less than me going out to flip burgers?”

Look, I get it.  As a designer you want to maximize your cost savings while presenting the best for your client.  Completely understandable.  But there are legal and ethical ramifications, which I mentioned above.  And I’m not even going to get into the part about getting viruses or malware from those packs, because that happens, too (if your computer becomes toast, all the cost savings in the world aren’t going to save you from a malware infection!)  Ultimately it’s better to just look for other options, whether it’s using a truly free font or spending a few bucks (the average pay font is between $5 – 25 as of this writing) to insure a quality, upkept product and a license that covers you and your client.

Of course, you could always just bury your head in the sand. The webdev that is offering that fontpack did just that, scrubbing my comments from his website after giving me excuses and platitudes. I have no idea if any of those fonts in that pack are mine, as I am not downloading it because I don’t consider it safe or trustworthy. And if I don’t consider his “free” downloads trustworthy…what does that say about his potential as someone a client should be looking for?

As for the contest winners: congratulations to Jennifer Geist (via Disqus) and /u/captainalphabet and /u/DeerVay (via Reddit) - you're the lucky winners of a copy of High-Logic's Maintype!  I'll be contacting you shortly for details.