Fonts, like any other digital asset on your computer, come with their own rules for licensing.
When selecting a font, the decision process involves more than choosing between serif and sans serif: understanding how the font is licensed matters too. Though typographers need to be concerned with their rights to modify and extend a given font, even you as an end user should be asking yourself some questions. Do you have permission to use a font in commercial work, or in a public work at all? Can you even share that font with another person?
If you’re creating a work you wish to share, then licensing matters to you, and you should understand how open source applies to the world of fonts.
The most common open source font license is the SIL Open Font License, often just referred to by its initials OFL. But it’s not the only open source font license out there. In fact, the range of licenses which have been applied to fonts is broad, and sometimes confusing.
The Fedora Project, for example, recognizes over twenty font licenses as compatible with inclusion in the project. These include everything from the well-know Creative Commons to licenses originally created for just a single font, like the Elvish Font License, created for Tengwar, which true Lord of the Rings fans may recognize as the script in which elven languages like Quenya and Sindarin are commonly written.
What makes licensing for fonts confusing is that many licenses originally written for software or other creative works often don’t mesh well with the ways in which fonts are used in derivative works, and many font licenses make distribution free but restrict other freedoms like modification or naming derived fonts with similar names to the original.
Further, copyleft licenses like the GPL can make it unclear whether creative works making use of a font must also make use of a copyleft license. While it might be entertaining to imagine a document becoming open source merely because of its font selection, that’s not a legal road most authors (or font creators) want to go down, and some licenses have explicit exceptions for fonts (for example, the GPL has an optional font exception clause).
Sources for open fonts
Most authors of open source projects, however, aren’t interested in the intricacies of how licensing applies to fonts. They just want to know that the font they are using is legal to use and redistribute with their project, and that others have those same rights.
Here are five great sources you can use to find and download open source fonts for use in your programs, documents, and artistic creations.
- The League of Moveable Type is a community of font creators who license a curated collection of fonts under the OFL and host their source files on GitHub.
- FontSpace is a general-purpose font download site where you can filter fonts to only those available under an open license.
- Google Fonts is a source for “hundreds of free, open source fonts optimized for the web.” Google Fonts are designed for use with their API service for display as webfonts across any site which wishes to use them.
- Font Squirrel is another general hosting site for fonts, all of which are free for commercial use, but the site enables you to specifically filter for open source licensed fonts if you choose.
- The Open Font Library contains over 6,000 individual fonts from over 250 contributors, spanning a variety of licenses, all available as easy-to-use webfonts.
These, of course, are not the only sources for finding open source fonts. Your preferred Linux distribution probably ships with some already selected, and others are available elsewhere online. Just be sure you trust the source from which you are acquiring your fonts to have accurate licensing information.
Design your own
Can’t find exactly what you’re looking for? Or just want to try your hand at typography? FontForge is an open source project designed to open the world of font creation to anyone who wants to try their hand at it. Initially created by George Williams, FontForge is a jointly GPL- and BSD-licensed tool which rivals and in many ways surpasses its non-free alternatives.
FontForge provides a free ebook which lays out many of the basic things you need to know in order to get started with font creation: both how to use the program, as well as some of the high level concepts and terminology you should be familiar with.
Whatever your interest in free and open source fonts, we hope you’ll contribute any of your favorite resources in the comments below. And for more on the origins and future of open source fonts, check out this write-up of open source font pioneer Dave Crossland’s keynote at Flock 2013.