Q&A

Font licensing: Personal use vs. commercial use

Peter reached out to me on Twitter and asked:

“When should you pay for fonts? When does personal use turn into commercial use?”

I love this question, since font licensing is an issue that many people perceive as boring, dry or intimidating. Here I want to give you a short overview and focus on the difference between free, trial, personal, and commercial use. The problem is that almost every foundry does things differently, so be sure to check the specifics of your font vendor of choice.

Free to download is not always free to use

You don’t buy a font, you license it for a specific use. This could be to:

  • install it on your computer and use it for desktop publishing, or
  • install it on a web server to display it on a website, or
  • embed it in an app, e-book, and so on.

So if you pay to get a font file, it does not mean you can use it in whatever way you want. A font free to download and free for personal or trial use is not free to use in a commercial project. Except it’s explicitly stated, like on Google Fonts (which might be the main reason for its popularity).

Trial Fonts

Several times I fell in love with some details of a typeface, purchased it, and then found out that it was actually too much or distracting when I used it in my design. To solve this dilemma, many foundries nowadays offer trial fonts. Some of my favorites do, which means they enable you to try out the typeface with a limited, or sometimes the full character and feature set.

When should you pay for trial fonts? Once you decide to use it on an actual project or go into production, you’ll have to license it. Some exceptions may apply, depending on the individual foundry’s conditions.

Personal use vs. commercial use

Among others, the type desinger Alanna Munro (I featured Avona & Avaon Serif by her) makes her fonts available for personal use or student projects on a pay-what-you-can basis. I reached out to her, and according to Alanna, personal use is:

  • For example, a garage sale sign or invitation to your kid’s birthday party.
  • Student work while at school.
  • Trial or evaluating quality or character set of a typeface.

On the other hand, commercial use is:

  • A designer who is using the fonts on their portfolio site (this generates clients and income).
  • A business or organization that will install it on their own computers to edit/generate work using the fonts.
  • When the work moves beyond the spec and the fonts are chosen for the project. I encourage designers to add this cost to their client expenses or factor it into their fee.

I like Alanna’s differentiation a lot, because it gives you guidance and would summarize it with:

Personal is basically anything that is not intended to make any money in a direct or an indirect way. If it’s not personal, it’s commercial.

I discovered that personal use on a website is almost always excluded. Lost Type points this out in their license agreement. But there might be exceptions to that as well. If you’re not certain, ask the foundry about it.

Check licensing before you choose a font

This all falls into the limitations when picking a proper typeface for a project. Sometimes you have a cool font installed on your computer, and want to use it in an app, UI design or web design. But then you find out that licensing exceeds the given parameters, or the foundry does not offer the license you need. So check this first.

You can always extend your license

Don’t be afraid, if you made a mistake or the circumstances changed. Many foundries are super nice, you can always reach out to them to ask what to do in your specific situation. You can upgrade licenses later and will most likely only pay the difference (Alanna offers this as well).


This was just a short dip into the subject of licensing, and hope I could give you some guidance when personal or trial use turns into commercial use. If you like it, maybe in an upcoming article I’ll cover the different kind of licenses for commerical use for web and app design. If you have more questions, I’m happy to read them in the comments or hit me up on Twitter!

4 Comments

  1. Oh, much appreciate the explanation, Oliver! Would love to know more about commercial options. My clients are small business owners/personal brands so they rarely decide on licensing the font, no matter how they like it, and I’m left with other free choices.?

    1. Of course not 😉 There are affordable options for small business owners. If you just budget around € 100 for fonts, it might be sufficient for their use. For webfonts styles start at around € 30 to 40 for 10,000 page views per month. I always explain to them, that the typeface is the visual representation of their voice. And investing in a less widespread typeface is investing in the uniqueness of your message. And maybe just for the headings, one style to start with?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *