Font licensing, webfonts and fair trade

A few weeks ago, I had to advise a design studio on licensing fonts. It is a common practice since different foundries and distributors handle licenses in many alternative ways. What may be complex for us, who work in the type industry, can become a nightmare for font users and design studios that acquire licenses for their clients. Some have made an effort in simplifying font licenses but webfonts is still a case worth discussing.

From all the types of use you can make of fonts, the web is probably the format where we find more differences, both in the licensing model and the pricing. Some articles offer information on the topic and compare the different licenses available. I was surprised to note there is little debate or discussion on this.

In terms of pricing, we can differentiate two main models for licensing webfonts, “pay as you go”—I call it a subscription to be less ambiguous— and “pay once”.

Before writing this article, I wanted to get a first impression of people’s positions so I did a quick poll. The question was simple and plain—with all the ethics implied in the word “unfair”—Do you think the annual subscription model for webfonts is unfair? I acknowledge I positioned myself when formulating the question, choosing the word “unfair” instead of “fair” and offering two affirmative options but only one for disagreement. The results of the voting are almost balanced, 41% think the subscription model for webfonts is fair—not “unfair”—and 59% agree this is an unfair model. A considerable percentage of people (32%) voted strongly on this, thinking the subscription model for webfonts is a scam. Needless to say, when I ask about “fairness”, I consider all the people involved in the trade (font distributor, font author, buyer, licensee and font user). It is impossible to think about fairness if not fair to everyone affected.

I will briefly describe the experience that made me especially reflect on this. A design studio wanted to license a webfont for a client. The budget for the project was limited, having a maximum amount for licensing fonts. They presented the proposal using trial fonts and calculated the license cost to fit the estimate. The project was approved. While buying the font licenses, they discovered the cost for the web was a recurring payment, tying the client to the distributor and exceeding the budget over time. They trusted the platform they often used for licensing fonts and they didn’t check in other places. While studying this case I could confirm the font was also available from other distributors and on the foundry site. If they were acquiring the web license in MyFonts, they had to commit to an annual payment (e.g. one font 37€). Meanwhile, the foundry site and other distributors offer the license as a one-payment purchase (e.g. one font 39$). The price is similar in both cases, which means the subscription model is never cheaper, not even in the unlikely case of using the font only for a few months. Would you consider this fair trade?

Many questions come to mind when reflecting on this. Why do licensees have to be dependent on a platform/company? What if the company goes bankrupt, is sold, or changes the subscription terms? Why make a periodic payment? Are the distributors guaranteeing and offering updates on the fonts or any extra services—besides hosting? If so, does the client need that? Also, some distributors include two options for webfonts licenses, “pay once” or “recurring payment”. In these cases, why is “one payment” so expensive compared to desktop fonts? I would be interested to know the math and reasoning behind this pricing model.

If you ask me, I would say webfont subscriptions are not fair, especially to the user. It makes them dependent on a particular company/platform and very often expend more money over time.

7 Comments Font licensing, webfonts and fair trade

  1. Amy Papaelias

    Hi María! Remove “font” from webfont and you’re getting at the problematic nature of the web costs for users. Font licensing on the web seems to be modeled on existing web platform subscription models for web design tools and CMSs (Squ*respace, W*, W*bflow, etc.) Is this helpful? Greedy? Because, capitalism? Our software overlords have figured out that subscription pricing makes a lot more money than purchasing a one time license for design software and entertainment, I imagine the same can be said for fonts.

  2. Dyana Weissman

    I’ll admit I’m not a licensing expert, but I am a typeface designer, so I do care about getting paid what is warranted. First, there are ups and downs to *any* kind of web licensing. What if someone purchases a perpetual license for a hosted service, and the hosted service goes out of business? What if a distributor is no longer allowed to distribute a typeface? These things happen more often than one may think.

    And to Amy’s point… yes, capitalism. Dismantling capitalism is a whole other thing, and in the meantime, we intellectual property holders need to pay our rent. I’m sure we are in agreement, María, that some distributors are charging way too much for webfont subscriptions. Luckily, we have choices. Are independent foundries with subscriptions also unfair?

    Especially for smaller websites, a limited-term subscription might be the least expensive, safer, and better option. I’m guessing that the reason a perpetual web license is so expensive compared to a desktop license is probably because of the potential number of users. A desktop license for one user is relatively inexpensive, and desktop license prices go up with the number of users in an organization. It is the same with webfont licenses: webfonts are used (served) exponentially more times, hence their price is exponentially higher. A perpetual webfont license will have to be much larger to cover the largest possible scenario, so the typeface designer does not lose money.

  3. Kris Sowersby

    Font licensing is hard. There’s no easy solution or quick fix. You’ve outlined a few good, but hard problems we’re all dealing with.

    I think it’s important to consider the philosophical stance of foundries: do they regard fonts as tools or materials? If we consider ourselves as industrial or trade concerns, are we providing materials or tools to the professional industry? For example, are we making knives or growing produce for chefs?

    Bear with me for an another imperfect analogy. Renting a tool for business is normal. Renting materials is not. A builder can rent a drill, but when their subscription runs out the holes they drilled aren’t revoked. If they rented wood, the walls they built wouldn’t be revoked when the subscription expires. This is true for fonts and printed materials, but not for live digital products. As Dyana says, we’ve already seen the consequences of this.

    Desktop licensing was imperfect, but easily understood. You paid per computer, made what you needed, and had the fonts forever. Back then, it was largely brand IDs and print stuff. Maybe some videos and ads. Websites, and subsequently webfonts, not only needed a new font format (eot/woff) but a new license. Foundries were seeing adjacent web services surface with new pricing models, and it seemed like we could adapt new models too. Pageviews was popular, it was directly tied to website metrics, so seemed easy and fair to base a price on.

    After desktop/print licensing, webfont licensing was one of the first mainstream breakout categories. App fonts soon followed, then a myriad of advertising/social media/app/product/OEM/web service etc. to deal with all the specific instances.

    Since then we’ve seen the rise of SaaS and subscriptions. Naturally, foundries have tried that too. It *seems* fair on the face of it: just pay for what you need as you need it. But the flip side, as you rightly point out, is what happens when the subscription service dies or changes the terms? We’ve seen it happen. We’ve seen people’s fonts pulled, their sites and layouts breaking. Maybe we’re used to it now? Like Netflix pulling shows or frequent software updates? Is it just part of the deal? Are we now no longer providing fonts as tools or materials, but as a service?

    Subscriptions are a silicon valley mindset. A while back, we were approached by some VC bro wanting to buy the rights to a font family. Then it escalated to the entire foundry. It never happened, we were mostly curious to see their play. As it turns out, some valuations are calculated on potential annual revenue. Subscriptions make that calculation easy and future investor income predictable. If you don’t have a subscription model, your business won’t be valued as highly. There’s a boring, investor-prioritising reason Monotype have subscriptions: to extract maximum cash now and appeal to future buyers.

    But we’re talking about font licensing fairness, something I’ve thought about a lot. What’s a fair metric to base pricing on? We’ve seen a few foundries move to company size as the metric. You get to use the fonts for all formats and media, which is great! It simplifies licensing, client confusion, and is massively permissive. However, company size isn’t an accurate model for company financial success. There is no firm correlation between employee count and profitability.

    Ideally we’d love to ascertain the value a company gets from using the fonts. Which is nigh on impossible, so you’ve gotta use approximate measures. This is why company size has become popular, it’s an easy, non-invasive way to guess the value a company will get from the fonts.

    The fairest pricing model would be something like: a percentage of the exact financial value a company extracts from using the fonts. The price of the fonts would be adjusted to their local economy, using a “purchasing-power parity” exchange rate, sorta like the Big Mac Index.

    The Big Mac Index would be easy to ascertain, but value extracted impossible. We’re left with ersatz value metrics, like company size.

    Like most goods in every market, the price of fonts will likely be the maximum a market can bear. Like Amy and Dyana point out: capitalism. It’s fundamentally unfair, we’re stuck with using imperfect pricing mechanisms within a crushing economic system.

  4. María Ramos

    Thanks for opening the conversations, there are good points in your comments. Can we compare fonts to other things in the market to price them in the exact same way? Fonts can hardly be identified with other items in the market. We will probably agree to say a font is one thing and many. And, I’ll dare to say what a font is not. A font is not a service but a product, a digital product. From this point of view, comparing fonts with web services seems inappropriate. If we think of a font as a “ready-to-use” product, it makes sense to sell it as that. When you buy a product, if it works and still meets your needs, you are able to use it for as long as you want.

    With fonts, things get a bit more complicated. From time to time, I find myself comparing fonts to music, not that they are similar products, but they are similar in what you get when you get them. One doesn’t acquire the product but the rights to use/play it. Does it make sense for these rights to be temporary? How often a font is used on the web for a short term? Does this happen at all? If so, might be the subscription model the reason? Is it really a more affordable option?

    Answering one of your questions, Dyana, I think subscriptions for webfonts are unfair. It doesn’t matter if the retailer is a big platform of an independent foundry. Pricing may seem more appropriate in some cases than others but being dependent on an external company is one of the biggest problems I see in the model. As Kris points out, fonts are essential for a site to work.

    We all agree retailers make more money with subscriptions. At the same time this happens, expenses for clients go higher. I know how hard it’s to make a living from selling fonts. Still, I avoid selling “my fonts” through platforms and companies that do not meet the criteria for what I consider “fair trade”. Any other positions on this are as valid as mine. Everyone has their own circumstances and I may be in a different situation in the future, but this is not about personal choices. The main intention of this reflection on pricing webfonts is if we, as an industry, can do better, thinking not only about ourselves but about our clients.

    1. Kris Sowersby

      Counter Forms recently launched. They’ve got regional pricing & a company-size metric:

      “The only metric we use to create a price is the number of people in the licensee’s organisation. There are 7 tiers ranging from 1 person to 500 people. If your organisation is larger than 500 you’ll have to email us at for a custom price.

      Once we have a number based on the number of people in the licensee’s organisation we use Purchasing Power Parity data from the World Bank to adjust the price ensuring they are relative to the cost of living in your country.”

  5. Stephen Coles

    I think Kris has developed a useful analogy of fonts as a material, rather than a tool. Still, websites are often dynamic, and many are services that morph over time, providing new and different value to different and expanding audiences (even if they use the same fonts). In these instances, fonts behave more like tools than materials. Or, consider a building that expands dramatically or is completely refurbished. You gotta buy new wood.

    So, while I agree a subscription fee doesn’t always accurately reflect the value a font provides. Other times it does. I know that doesn’t make licensing any easier!


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