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What do I need to know about the copyright of fonts when sending files to my printers?

Do you have information regarding the copyright of fonts and transferring them to printers for projects such as collecting for output, QuarkXpress, and shipping with data files for print output? What is legal and permissible?


This question continues to haunt printers and designers. Because almost all fonts are licensed intellectual property, a fee must be paid to use them. In the days of hot-type -- pieces of metal or wood carved and set by hand -- it was easy to figure out who owned the type. Today’s fonts, however, comprise tiny little electronic files that can be zapped over the Internet at will.

There are lots of illegal fonts out there; the users have not actually paid to use them, which hurts everyone. But font vendors are not out to make it impossible for you to get your job into print. It is commonly accepted that almost every printer insists that designers provide fonts with their jobs. The reason is simple: there are hundreds -- perhaps thousands -- of different font variations called Helvetica. To get the exact reproduction of your file, the printer needs to use your version. Most printers have paid hundreds or thousands of dollars for their own font libraries, but they want to make sure they use the font YOU have licensed to reproduce your job.

By allowing license owners to embed fonts into PDF files, programs like Adobe Acrobat have overcome some of the concerns of license agreements. Some vendors chose to write code into their fonts so they will not be embedded, but most can be. Providing postscript files with fonts embedded accomplishes the same thing. Converting fonts to outlines is another way of embedding fonts in your files.

Programs such as InDesign, Quark 6 and FlightCheck allow designers to “collect” the fonts to make sure your printer uses the right version. There is a legal warning that comes up on screen saying these fonts are licensed and can be used only by the licensee. Lawyers could quibble, but as a standard industry practice it is fine for the printer to use your font to print your job. Font management programs like FontReserve, Suitcase and FontAgent allow printers dealing with thousands of fonts to store your fonts in your own separate library to use only with your jobs. If the printer used your fonts for someone else’s job, it would be a pretty clear violation of the license, as would the use of unlicensed fonts.

Stephen Beals is a digital pre-press manager and has been writing for major print publications for many years. He is the author of A Practical Primer for Painless Print Production. He can be reached at

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