Are open source fonts an option for designers?

Posted by scottstoel on October 21, 2010 at 4:21 pm.

One of the most challenging font issues facing designers and enterprises today is licensing. Many don’t understand or realize that a fonts, like any piece of software, is licensed and how fonts are used are often part of the terms of that license

Font licensing is not standard across foundries and the terms of the license are often byzantine requiring a team of lawyers to help you decipher how a font can be used.

But what if there was a way around dealing with font licensing issues all together? This is where open source fonts come in.

In the past many fonts offered as open source were, to put it kindly, not ready for prime time. But as the open source font movement has matured the quality of fonts under these licenses is getting better all the time.

What does open source mean?

The Open Font License was created to make collaboration on font projects easier for academic and linguistic communities. But one of the side benefits for end users is that these fonts can be used anywhere, free of charge.

This applies only to fonts that use this license. It is not safe to assume that any font offered as “free” is automatically under this license. Many fonts offered as “free” are offered free for personal use and if you wish to use it commercially you need to buy a license. You will need to read the fine print, but in most cases sites offering open source fonts are very up front about their licensing. You can do an online search for “open source fonts” and see what I mean. But if a font has an Open Font License, there is no limit to the way you can use it in your graphic projects.

So what are the downsides?

As mentioned earlier the quality for open source fonts is vastly improved. One of the more vocal proponents of the open source font movement, The League of Moveable Type, offers 12 very nice typefaces (and is looking to add more) including several display and text fonts.

But in a world where designers are used to typefaces with 30+ different styles such as Adobe’s Myriad Pro, which covers the gamut from regular to semi-bold-semi-extended-italic, the breadth of styles offered by most open source fonts is lacking. Many offer only one style, or if you are lucky, a roman and an italic font. For projects that call for a nice display font, you may find a good open source alternative. If you need more versatility in your typefaces, you might be hard pressed to find on in the open source world.

But as the movement continues, and because of the collaborative nature of the open source fonts, we will see more full-featured fonts. It is only a matter of time.