Buying Fonts in a Culture of Free

Any time I mention wanting to buy fonts or suggest that I've spent money on design resources in general, I'm met with disbelief and informed that I can get such things online for free. It's true. If you know where to look, you can find most things for free on the internet—software, movies, music, fonts—but that doesn't mean it's a good idea. There are of course plenty of fonts that come licensed for free, but as a rule, they're not much good beyond the occasional display type, and generally about as useful as their price indicates.

I've always been a strong believer that you get what you pay for. If you get a free font, you can't expect it to be particularly well designed. It won't be as reliable as a typeface carefully crafted by an experienced type designer. The thing about well designed typefaces is that they tend to be very costly. I don't think their pricing is excessively high, considering the amount of work that goes into designing them, but the cost can be prohibitively high for young designers.

Like many design students, I have acquired contraband fonts over the years—some from friends, others snagged from school computers to work on class assignments. In general, using these typefaces for school projects has seemed fine, since we are, after all, there to learn graphic design and it helps to do so using well designed typefaces. Not to mention that it's considered fair use under intellectual property law. The problem is that after those class projects are finished, the stolen typefaces remain.

By then I've become attached to them, having spent days upon days lovingly setting them, learning their quirks, remembering which pairs of letters are most likely to need kerning. When it comes time for me to do a paid project or work on materials for self-promotion, I want to go back to my old favorites, but find myself in an ethical quandry: I don't have the licenses and thus have no right to use them. Generally my response in that situation is to find a satisfactory typeface that I do have the license for, but sometimes that solution can be disappointing.

The unanimous response when I relate this dilemma to my peers is that I would probably never get caught. Fair enough. But my qualms about using stolen typefaces don't arise out of fear of getting caught, but rather from this idea that design work is something to be valued. I've done a lot of thinking about the relationship between time, attention, and value: I put a lot of time and attention into my work because I think design is important. Asking clients to pay a reasonable price for my design services reflects an expectation that they value design as much I do. Stealing typefaces constitutes the exact opposite: doing it suggests that you don't value the designer's work at all. Not even a little bit. If you did, you'd be willing to pay for it.

After thinking about this over the past several years, I recently came across a short documentary on this very issue. If you care at about type or have any connection to the graphic design discipline, I highly recommend you watch it. Incidentally, it also has really nice type.

Young Type Lovers Anonymous by Danielle Hall.

Melissa Green