by Erik Spiekermann
Typographer and designer Erik Spiekermann discusses the basics of licensing and copyright in the field of design and typography.
Artistic ideas cannot be protected by law, only their realisations. This is logical: anyone can have an idea, but to actually produce a movie, a song, a book, a logo or a typeface requires talent, time and energy, and usually also money. In normal circumstances books, films and songs are typically sold to customers (like any other product), and the author is paid out of the profits from the sale as payment for his or her work. Most countries have institutions which collect fees from publishers and redistribute the money to their members.
Unfortunately, we graphic designers do not have such an institution and don’t normally get paid out of whatever our clients might earn from their logos or webpages or posters. That is because most of those things are not sold as products, and revenues from them are difficult or impossible to quantify. Normally a designer licenses work to clients; this means that the clients do not own the work (for example a design or image or font), but pay for the right to use it under terms that they agree upon with the designer.
At the moment, artists and designers have no other practical method of getting paid for their work. There are many people out there who want everything to be free for everybody else to use, which is a very romantic idea and theoretically desirable for the users and consumers (at least in the short run), but it ignores the reality that the producers of creative work need to pay for food and rent just like everybody else. Yes, there is open source software whose authors have decided to share their work with everybody. But these authors very often have some other source of income—how else could they make a living while giving away the results of their work? Linus Torvalds and Matt Mullenweg certainly aren’t working for free.
Fonts are also software created by designers, and thus the end user typically does not buy a font, but rather a licence to use it. And because font usage is impossible to monitor, most fonts have only one licence, which means that a newspaper that uses a font in a daily print run of millions of copies pays the same price as a graphic designer who uses the font once on a business card. The only benefit for type designers when their typefaces are used in gigantic publications of that sort is the fact that other graphic designers might see the fonts and be inspired to use them in their work. And despite the common misconception that fonts are created mainly by enormous companies, most fonts are the work of self-employed individuals. Greta, the typeface used in the printed version of this article, is the result of 2 years of continuous work by one designer (plus two assistants whom he paid) who hoped that he would eventually be paid for his efforts through licence fees.
Early sketch for FF Meta Serif (above) by Erik Spiekermann, and its final outlines digitised by Christian Schwartz and Kris Sowersby.
Type used on websites also needs to be licensed. The type design industry has no standard End User licence Agreement (EULA) for webfonts, but most foundries have a licensing system that charges different amounts based on the average number of visitors per day. But in comparison to the overall expense of building and maintaining a website, font licence fees are generally quite small.
I know that my own students have thousands of fonts on their hard drives, including ones that I designed. And I also know that most of them have never paid for a licence—fonts just seem to appear out of thin air! As long as the fonts stay on the hard drives or get used for non-commercial student work, I generally turn a blind eye, even though they are all illegal copies. But when other designers use my work or that of other type designers for their professional projects and charge money for it, wouldn’t it be fair if I got my share in the form of a licence fee? Why would I (or anybody else) ever spend hundreds of hours designing a typeface if I never saw a penny back for my efforts?
Consider: you have just designed a cool website or a stunning poster. Then you see the same site or the same poster, albeit with different text on it, or perhaps with slightly altered colours. Someone used your code or your layout for their own purposes, giving you neither credit nor money. Would that be fair?
If you don’t want other designers stealing your creations, then you should be aware of the fact that your work is only made possible because other people made the tools for you—to use, but not to steal.
Erik Spiekermann is a German typographer and designer. He is professor at the University of the Arts Bremen, founder of FontShop International and MetaDesign. He now runs Edenspiekermann in Berlin & Amsterdam.