Normal People (and Lawyers) Shouldn’t Buy Fonts

Buying a font may be better left to professionals. That’s because font licenses are a minefield, and buying a font is a bit like buying a DIY computer thirty years ago.

I’m a huge fan of Matthew Butterick’s Typography for Lawyers, which has helped me make big improvements to my personal and professional documents and websites. Butterick also has me convinced I ought to be using better fonts than those that came with my copy of Microsoft Word. But whenever I’ve tried, I wind up deciding that Georgia is good enough.

That’s because fonts, as it turns out, are a great example of how to take something simple and straightforward and make it a royal pain to buy and use.

Font licensing is a minefield

Chances are that if you buy a font and use it like you normally use fonts, you are probably violating the license.

For example, one of the fonts Butterick recommends as an alternative to Georgia—the font I use for most text—is his own font, Equity. I happen to like Equity, but the license would make it practically impossible for me to use it.

Even though the license is short, it makes my head spin. First, it looks like if I purchased the font for my firm, I wouldn’t be able to use it for personal documents. That’s a problem, because like most solo practitioners I know, I use the same computers for my firm and for personal use (not to mention Lawyerist and Bitter Lawyer). So I’ve either got to buy two licenses (maybe four, in my case), or think about that license every time I start a new document. (Update: Says Butterick “You’re a solo attorney, right? So if “your firm” buys you a license, you can use it on personal documents. That’s not a hair I’m going to split with any solo attorney.” So that partially resolves this issue.)

Let’s say you use Equity for everything. You probably just make it the default font in Word so you don’t have to think about it. Then you need to write a personal letter—to your auto insurer, perhaps, or your bank. Don’t forget to change the font.

Or let’s say you are a member of the Lawyerist LAB or a local email list, and you want to share your client intake checklist or your flat fee retainer. Better remember to change the font before you share it, or turn it into a non-editable PDF, because you’re only allowed to share an editable document with fewer than 20 people.

What if you write a blog and decide to embed Equity in your blog, as Butterick recommends? Be careful with those landing pages; you only get three domains. And make sure you don’t get too popular. At 100,000 monthly pageviews across those three domains, you’ll have to remember to contact Butterick for a bigger license (which isn’t identified on his website).

And the thing is, the Equity license is better than most other font licenses I have come across, and it still rules out some fairly normal usage.

What is a font, anyway

It turns out that, even if you get past the license, a font is a much more complicated thing than you might think.

I looked into buying Futura because I thought it would be a good display font for one of my websites. My Google search led me to Linotype, where the page for Futura lists twenty-two different styles, all sold separately. You want to be able to use italics or boldface—or both? They don’t come together, and the “value packs” aren’t much help.

So even if you know what font you want to buy, you still may not be able to figure out what you actually need to purchase.

Fonts are for designers, not normal people (and lawyers)

In the end, I’m beginning to realize that fonts are not meant to be purchased by normal people (or normal lawyers). They are meant to be purchased by typographers and graphic designers. Unless you speak fluent typographese, you are probably better off sticking with the fonts that came with your software, no matter how much Butterick trash talks them.

But definitely get a copy of Typography for Lawyers. Even if you can’t put the font advice into practice, the rest is well worth the $25 purchase price. Edit: I just bought the Kindle edition so I would have a copy on my iPad.

By the way, I am hoping Matthew Butterick stops by to tell me I’m just being a dummy and this is all very user-friendly and I’m reading the licenses wrong and shopping at the wrong websites, or something. I really do want to take his advice and use better fonts, if I can.

Update: Butterick did stop by, and you should read his comments below. He thinks I have misinterpreted some of the terms of his license, but since I’m not convinced, I will let him speak for himself.


  1. Avatar Dan Sherman says:

    Minor point on sharing documents: Word’s default is to not embed fonts. You shouldn’t have to worry about violating the license by posting a Word document, unless you tell it to embed the font.

    But yes, fonts are tricky. Especially the bit in Equity’s license about only using work licenses for work.

    Looking forward to MB’s response.

    • Sam Glover Sam G. says:

      But if I buy a nice font, I am obviously going to embed it. Otherwise my documents will look clumsy when I share them, which is the opposite of what someone who cares enough about typography to buy a font wants.

      • Avatar Matt (not Butterick) says:

        I think about it this way: certain documents are drafts and certain documents are published, final copies. Drafts can be shared and freely edited and are mainly used for their content, not style. An individual should use their own fonts and licenses to apply their particular typographic style to the document. Published documents are final, non-editable copies of a document that accurately reflect your personal typographic style. This way, the license allows you to share your personal style in final, published documents without allowing others to freely use the font for their own documents without a license.

  2. Avatar Matthew Butterick says:

    Sam, in general most of your arguments could also apply to other licensed digital assets, like stock photography, MP3s, or ebooks — are you saying you don’t buy any of these either? Separating fonts into their own category is arbitrary.

    Calling font licenses a “minefield” paints the ridiculous image of type designers laying traps to destroy their customers. This is not only untrue, but unfair. A type designer is the design world’s equivalent of the solo attorney: plugging along day after day, for uncertain returns, motivated primarily by wanting to do some good in the world. Sam, as a solo attorney yourself, are these really the people you want to pick on? Type designers love their customers, because they’re the ones who see the value in better type and are willing to pay for it. Most people aren’t.

    Moreover, type designers trust their customers, because they have to. Fonts don’t have any DRM or copy protection. The sad reality is that eventually, every designer’s fonts will end up on a free download site (with Google often illuminating the path). Type designers don’t have an industry association that will lobby congress for favorable legislation or conduct police raids of servers in foreign countries. In practical terms, there’s nothing to be done about these losses — it’s a cost of business, like shoplifting.

    As a lawyer and type designer, I agree with your point that many font licenses are too long and complicated. Customers shouldn’t have to struggle to understand the line between permitted and unpermitted use. So my goal with the Equity license was to write something short, clear, and concrete. As far as I know, it’s the shortest in the industry. I really wanted the license to be “I trust you. Please don’t be a jerk.” That would’ve been shorter and clearer, but not concrete. So I tried to create a license that encompasses the things lawyers ordinarily would want to do with a font, while not creating loopholes that condone extraordinary use.

    Some of your complaints about the Equity license stem from the fact that’s it’s MORE liberal than many font licenses. For website embedding, you portray the 100,000 page-view limit as onerous. But most font licenses allow zero page views. For MS Word embedding, you portrary the 20-user limit as restrictive. But most font licenses allow sharing with zero users. And this is not to defend or promote the Equity license. Rather, I just want to point out that your generalizations are based on observations of one license, not a comparison of licenses.

    Beyond that, type designers are always happy to help customers understand what their font license permits, and, if necessary, to modify the license to accommodate customer needs. Sam, I’d be happy to make you an Equity license that allows 10 million page views a month; I’m just going to charge you more than the usual price, because you’d be getting more than the usual benefit.

    In the end, type designers want to treat their customers fairly, and expect only the same in return. Anyone who is capable of that will find that buying a font is no big deal at all.

    • Sam Glover Sam G. says:

      I wish I could say you have alleviated my concerns, but you’ve done just the opposite. I agreed in my post that the Equity font license is better than most, but it still doesn’t let normal people use the font like normal people use fonts. I don’t think type designers are trying to lay traps; I think they are bad at writing licenses that reflect reality. And I have too much respect for their work to buy it if I know I will probably violate the license every time I share a form or write a letter or publish a post.

      System fonts have an important benefit that font licenses remove: everybody has them. If I use Georgia in my documents, I know that 90% of people will be able to view my documents the way I intend, no matter what software they have. If I use Equity, it’s likely that only 1% or fewer will be able to view my documents the way I intend, because I can only publish it on paper or non-editable PDF.

      And I just don’t want to have to think about font licenses every time I create a new document, attach a document to an email, convert it to PDF, create a fillable PDF form, and so on. I don’t really need font licenses to be that big a part of my life. So for all your (legitimate) criticisms of system fonts, they are still a better option for most users.

      Edit: Yes, stock photography and e-books and other digital assets also have silly, unrealistic licenses.

      • Avatar Bruno Lemgruber says:

        Dear Sam,

        I must agree 100% with Matthew, not only with his description of “what and how a Type Designer is and relates to its clients” but most of all with his plea that making such a strong statement as “font licenses as minefields” is most of all unfair since that would apply (in even stronger terms) to every single rights-managed service/product there is.

        Even tough you seem to agree with this in your “Edit” by the end, this is put as a minor/end-note that does not change the weight of your arguments.

        What seems to be ignored in the whole argument is that, for “System fonts (to be able to) have an important benefit that font licenses remove:” they were designed and executed by the same Type Designers that try making a living out of their other projects.
        The difference? Large corporations like Microsoft, Apple and Google have paid one large sum for their services so people everywhere would have the basics to work on.

        The other “missing argument” is that those “good guys” like Microsoft and Google have done such a thing so that their systems will have a “plus” and that adds value to their products/brands.

        I am not a type designer and, opposite to what is seem to be indicated, as a designer we are the most affected by font licenses since this directly impact on our design options and eventually reflects on our work output when we (or our client’s) cannot afford X or Y typefaces to be licensed.

  3. Avatar Matthew Butterick says:

    You’re invoking a benchmark of how “normal people use fonts” without defining what that means. If what you really mean is “how Sam Glover uses fonts,” then there’s no point to debate. If a system font like Georgia suits your particular needs more than a professional font, great. I’m not here to talk you out of it.

    Font licenses as a group may be inelegantly written, but of course they’re intended to capture realistic use. The fact that thousands of people — both designers and nondesigners, and lawyers too — happily buy or use professional fonts every day proves that this is so, and that your complaint is overbroad.

    Are font licenses meant to capture *every* use? No, because some uses — for instance, unlimited redistribution — are unusual, and would necessarily dilute the market for the font. But I can’t redistribute my MP3s or ebooks or other software either. The digital economy has not ground to a halt because of the cumulative anxiety caused by these restrictions. We live with them. Fonts ask no more nor less of us.

    • Sam Glover Sam G. says:

      I think “normal people/lawyers” share forms in editable formats like Word, use the same computer for personal and work stuff, and sometimes have more than three domains. On my local solo and small-firm email list, for example, there are at least a dozen requests for sample forms every week, if not every day. I know plenty of lawyers with more than three domains (usually for SEO reasons, or to distinguish different practice areas). And most of the solo and small-firm lawyers I know use the same computer for personal and business stuff. Equity comes close to allowing that use, but as you point out, few if any other fonts (Futura, for example) do. And even with Equity, the licenses on your website don’t seem to allow that use.

      The analogy to digital audio files is appropriate, but only if you go back in time. For years MP3s were, by definition, illegal copies. Then the recording industry dove into DRM schemes and restrictive licensing that didn’t reflect reality, so they were violated more or less constantly by everyone who listened to music using an iPod or other digital audio player. It’s only now that digital music licenses are starting to reflect reality. Consumers haven’t changed their behavior; it’s just that music producers have finally accepted that they need to go with the flow and charge accordingly.

      Incidentally, I don’t mean to hold your Equity license up as an example of a bad license. As you point out, it’s far more permissive than most. I’m not even sure that the license for Futura would allow me to use it in a logo on my firm website, much less as a body font.

      • Avatar Matthew Butterick says:

        The Equity license doesn’t distinguish between personal and business use. It distinguishes between a license you buy for yourself vs. a license bought for you by an organization. If you buy the license yourself, you can use it on any document you create, be it personal or business or otherwise. If your organization buys you a license, you can only use that for “projects on behalf of the organization.”

        But hey, if you really need a font that allows unlimited redistribution, those are available too. For instance, a font like Charis SIL is available under an open license that carries only minor restrictions. Charis is based on the font Charter, a well-respected design. (I use Charter on the Typography for Lawyers website.) You can download Charis, improve your typography, and never worry that you’re violating the license. (And it’s free.)

  4. Avatar Jake says:

    After spending some time with Typography for Lawyers my thoughts were current word processing and text rendering applications have issues where glyph selection (e.g. bold italics, special characters) or unpredictable rendering formulas across diverse systems are non-trivial to identify and resolve. Matthew Butterick is an amazing and accomplished typeface designer and author, and I expect many of his contributions will become more applicable to individuals and smaller organizations as self-publishing becomes more ubiquitous and relevant applications more completely promote typography. Sam is onto something about varying and impractical license terms being an impediment to growth.

  5. Avatar Shawn Tuma says:

    Sam & Matthew,

    Guys – great dialogue, I have really enjoyed reading it! I too am a huge fan of Typography for Lawyers and have a few thoughts on this issue. First, after what I’ve seen from my colleagues over the years I am fairly convinced that the vast majority of lawyers can care less about the overall look and feel of their documents as a finished product. I see more 4-line titles in all caps, bold and underline (repeated in their entirety in the footer as well), paragraphs spanning pages, and block quotes with more text that is bold+underline combined than text without. I sometimes wonder if these lawyers ever even see their documents as a final product or if they just dictate and release — hopefully the latter but I suspect not. The notion of looking at the fonts, much less buying fonts, would probably never cross their minds. This shows the tremendous need for Matthew’s work and I hope to God he can work miracles!

    For those of us who do care, however, I agree with you Sam in that Matthew has also convinced me that I ought to be using better fonts. After getting his book as a Christmas gift and reading through it, I have started looking at other fonts but have not yet made the leap of purchasing any. You raise some really good points to consider when looking at prospective fonts and font licenses and I am glad I had a chance to read this before making that leap.

    At the end of the day, I come away from this feeling like Sam has not necessarily changed his view that we ought to be using better fonts but that it’s just too much trouble given the licensing issues. Matthew, I have to wonder if you do not have a prospective Raving Fan in Sam if you can just work around a few of these licensing issues — do I see a collaborative project between you two to come up with a new licensing agreement that will change the way all of this works?

    In the meantime, thanks for the heads up on Charis – going to give it a try before making a purchase! Have a great weekend!

  6. Avatar Damien Riehl says:

    What a great dialogue by two people whose work I respect. I’ve also soaked up Butterick’s website and, later, his book — recommending it to many colleagues. It’s a book that should have been written years ago, and one that I hope reaches wider audiences — for the mostly selfish reason that I’m tired of reading others’ ugly briefs.

    In the discussion of licensing restrictions, one point that Sam and Matthew don’t discuss is the reality of working with co-counsel and local counsel. Many lawyers collaborate with out-of-firm lawyers daily. One lawyer may file the first brief, and their out-of-firm colleague may file the next. Also, both sides will submit proposed orders to the Court.

    If a lawyer (with good taste) buys a font license for his/her firm, alone, then it would appear that neither the Court nor co-counsel would be able to file a document with that font. That would lead to piecemeal aesthetics, with one brief looking wholly different than the last. Further, for page-length jurisdictions, co-counsel’s inability to know exactly how many pages a brief will end up being is simply impractical. Also impractical would be requiring co-counsel (or the Court) to purchase an expensive font for a one-off case.

    It’s hard enough convincing co-counsel that they should stop using Times New Roman, with many being (wrongly) convinced that either (1) the jurisdiction’s rule require it or (2) local custom would get the brief laughed out of court or otherwise scoffed at. (“But EVERYBODY uses Times New Roman.”) After winning that battle, try telling co-counsel that they need to spend hundreds of dollars on a font that they’ll probably never use again.

    In the end, using a “good enough,” prevalent system font like Georgia, Book Antiqua, or Goudy Old Style appears to alleviate these concerns. Documents look the same to everyone, consecutive briefs are uniform, and no one has licensing concerns.

    Lawyers want to stay on the straight and narrow. Professional fonts’ restrictive licenses (and even Butterick’s more-permissive license) make it hard to stay on the straight and narrow for collaborative cases.

    • Avatar Damien Riehl says:

      I should have mentioned that Butterick’s Equity font — unlike most others — appears to alleviate the sharing issue, permitting 20 collaborators. But a lawyer would still have to embed the font into the document itself, ballooning the file size. And that’s assuming that the average lawyer knows how to do such a thing (most don’t). If even if they do, they also need to remember, in the heat of battle, to embed.

      Again, using a prevalent “good enough” system font (that co-counsel probably has on their machine) lessens or eliminates those concerns.

  7. Avatar jamiekayser says:

    Mathew your site is 503.

    Restrictive font licensees just will not work for attorneys, the only people likely to abide by the terms of the licenses in the first place. This, “You can use this font on ever third Tuesday,” is a minefield. Forget about it.

    As a former designer I recognize the extreme value of typography, but as an attorney I must do whatever I can to simplify my practice and reduce potential liability.

  8. Avatar Aubrey says:

    I really have to agree with Sam here. I’m a multimedia graduate and in my final year of law school, so I’m going to comment on both arguments of this debate. When I discovered Matt’s book Typography for Lawyers I celebrated and wished that I had wrote it myself. Maybe I was convinced by Matt, or maybe Matt just confirmed what I already knew – that System fonts were not allowing my legal writings to breathe. So, I started buying fonts including some like Sabon that Matt has recommended. Then I discovered Equity. I pulled out my credit card and proceeded to read the license. Unbelievable! I was immediately discouraged by Matts attempt to just stop us from enjoying this wonderful font to our hearts content. In his discussion with Sam above, Matt admits that he understands that people will “shoplift his font”. If you already know this Matt, then don’t discourage those people who are willing to pay by including a license with such a “negative tone”. Matt, rightly so, wants to protect his intellectual property. And, most people want to do the right thing. Personally, if I pay the price you determined to be fair for your font. As long as I’m not selling it on, I don’t what to be told where and how I can use it. I love the Equity font, and it’s the font I’ve always wanted during law school. Because of the license agreement, I put my credit card back in my wallet. I will still buy the font, but four years ago, I might have gone straight to Google Torrents. So Matt, help us to help you. No more Nazi licences.

  9. Avatar FontLawyer says:

    Hey next time use FontLawyer!

  10. Avatar Tariq Ahmed says:

    Thanks, I think. Found Typography for Lawyers while looking for good fonts to use on my iPad as well as my laptop. Before that figured I would settle on Constatia (or however it is spelled). Now looks like I will indeed use that or maybe Georgia as suggested here. (If anyone needs to add fonts to their iPad, try the app Phont.)

  11. Avatar Jeff Taylor says:

    This comment’s late to the party, but these licenses (I’ve found similar problems) are probably a good reason to start using Google Fonts, which have unrestricted licenses. Of course, they’re a little limited in the styles, but all the same, they’re free and shareable.

    • Avatar Sam Glover says:

      Google Fonts are a great thing, although you’ll still want to avoid them for drafts you intend to share. Well, unless you want to walk the other party through the process of downloading and installing the appropriate font.

      • Avatar Jeff Taylor says:

        And that’s the reason that collaboration is so great. Although, I noticed yesterday that MS Word does an alright job of recognizing some of the fonts.

        Perhaps a post on installing fonts on a local computer?

  12. Avatar J. C. Starr says:

    This is a great article. While I will give Matt credit for writing a good book and creating a nice looking font, I am bowled over by the exaggerated sense of importance I am reading concerning legal typography. It’s not aimed at one person but anyone who thinks for a moment that using any reasonably acceptable typeface will send a message of inferiority. And most of all, if the court says it wants briefs in Courier, then as much as I don’t like it, I’ll err on the side of caution instead of making sure my artistic views are represented. The need to spend a great deal of money on a font (including distribution of document issues which are absolutely foreseeable) is that it’s yet another cost to bear that we must pass on to clients. And if the court system is to be accessible then we need to make it accessible. We can’t have anyone even subliminally penalized because fonts cost too much. We would probably be better off by what the fed says and that is to use any of a couple of standard fonts that are readily accessible with a specified level of point sizes. Done. Everyone can comply. And the rest is what most of us learned in resume writing class or the many typography books for desktop publishing or letter writing that are available. While I would also like to use the Equity font, I have to say that the licensing terms are a cost and the hassle that I can easily avoid by using any of a dozen great fonts that nobody will know the difference. Even subliminally. It’s a cost benefit analysis here.

  13. Avatar Cirkmann Zirkel says:

    I know I’m late to this party, but for anyone thinking about how to sync fonts easily between collaborators, SkyFonts is the thing, and use GoogleFonts for a lot of free quality fonts. Otherwise, SkyFonts also works together well with all fonts sites.

Leave a Reply