Every time we want to type a letter or some other document in Word or another word processor, we either use the default font or choose another one from the drop-down list at the top of the page. This article looks at what it is we are choosing, what exactly is a “font” and shares some top tips to ensure you stay safe when using them.

In fact, it is very easy to confuse typefaces with fonts. A typeface is a collection of letters, numbers, punctuation marks, symbols and the like, all of which have a common and distinctive design. This is what you see on the screen of your computer/mobile device or in written material like a magazine or advertisement. So what we are really choosing when we are typing a letter in a word processor is the typeface that we want to use.

A font, on the other hand, is what is used to create the typeface. Once upon a time, a font would have been the lead alloy or wooden block used to create each of the characters, but today fonts exist as small software programs that create and display typefaces.

Certain ramifications flow from this. As software programs, fonts are protected by copyright and so using a font without permission is an infringement of the owner’s copyright in it. Permission to use a font is usually granted, like with other software programs, by way of a licence. So when you buy a font, you are actually buying a licence to use the font software – and the font has to be used in accordance with the terms of that licence.

But beware! Although there are common principles running through such licences, their terms are not standardised, so it is important to carefully read the terms of the licence relevant to the font you want to use.

How do fonts installed on computers fit into this licensing scheme?

The computer operating system, whether it be Microsoft Windows or Apple’s OS X, comes with some pre-loaded font software (called ‘system fonts’) that Windows or OS X uses to display text in menus, title bars, dialog boxes and the like. You will be very familiar with many of these which include Arial, Courier, Times New Roman and Verdana.

Software applications (such as Word) also come bundled with fonts. If you go to a subscription-based font service which allows website designers to have access to a library of fonts from Adobe (and other font publishers/foundries) that they can use on just about any web site. (Web font usage is governed by the Typekit service Terms of Use.)

Golden rules to keep you safe when using fonts

We’ve looked at the key issues above but, of course, there is a huge amount of complexity hidden just below the surface. Below are some “golden rules” which should keep you safe. (With thanks to Allan Haley, Director of Words and Letters at Monotype Imaging.)

1. Font software is licensed, not purchased. You license font software from the font designer or font foundry that supplies it.

2. The licence sets out exactly how you may use the font software and so it needs to be read very carefully as font licences vary from publisher to publisher.

3. Most font software licences do not allow you to copy or distribute font software to companies or persons who do not also have a licence to use it. So you cannot let your advertising agency or your PR company use your fonts unless they themselves have a licence to use those fonts.

4. Most font licences allow users to embed font software into documents, but only for previewing and printing. In many cases a licence upgrade will be needed.

5. Most font software publishers will allow users to create static images from font software (such as a PNG file used as a web banner). Again a licence upgrade may be needed.

6. Most font software publishers will not allow their software to be modified in any way without permission – which may involve a separate licence.

7. Your company will be liable if you lend or give font software to others to use without a licence or if you use fonts outside of the terms of the licence.

This article is for general information purposes only and does not constitute legal or professional advice. It should not be used as a substitute for legal advice relating to your particular circumstances. Please note that the law may have changed since the date of this article.