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Deep Dive: Can I use a “free” font to create an alphabet product to sell?

This has come up a few times recently, so let’s dig in deep!

My research here pertains to derivative works: alphabet sets where the letters are overlain with a pattern, color, or other design elements, but the outlines of the letter shapes are unmodified. With sets like this, you could overlay black on top of the letter, and be back to the original alphabet. This post does not address more transformative letter sets where the outlines are modified, like split monograms or letters embellished and merged with decorative elements.

Alphabet set examples

Onward we go!

A lot of folks recommend using fonts from Google Fonts to create alphabet sets. At Google Fonts, you’ll see this under the “License” section of each font’s page:

The two licenses seen most frequently in that linked spot are the SIL Open Font License and the Apache License. Both licenses are older (between 14-17 years old at this point), and as such don’t cover a lot of modern use types. They’re also both written in a more vague manner than licenses of today.

Neither specifically allows or disallows converting the alphabet of a font into an SVG/PNG alphabet set; I don’t think it was a use type that was in existence back in the mid-aughts. And when reading a license like this, you should always assume that any type of use that is not specifically allowed must be assumed to be not allowed. But let’s dig in and we can see what parts of these licenses might apply.

SIL Open Font License 1.1 (2007):

PERTINENT SECTIONS:

[Definitions] “Modified Version” refers to any derivative made by adding to, deleting, or substituting – in part or in whole – any of the components of the Original Version, by changing formats, or by porting the Font Software to a new environment.

[Permissions & Conditions] 1) Neither the Font Software nor any of its individual components, in Original or Modified Versions, may be sold by itself.

[Permissions & Conditions] 5) The Font Software, modified or unmodified, in part or in whole, must be distributed entirely under this license, and must not be distributed under any other license.

As I read it, the SIL OFL says NO. You cannot make an alphabet set (PNG/SVG/etc.) from the font and sell it. I would argue that such a set would be considered to be (to use the license’s own language) a modified version that’s been ported to a new environment, and has had its format changed. As such, you can’t sell your Modified Version by itself, and in any way that you distribute it, you must distribute it under this same license.

So you can make derivative works, and you can give your versions away to others, but your modified version (even if its format has been changed, and it’s been ported to a new environment) must be distributed under the same SIL OFL, which means that you couldn’t sell it under any other license. So you couldn’t sell it at DB/FB, because they don’t allow any licensing documents in your download. You could sell it on your own, but the requirement to include the SIL OFL with your work would mean that anyone else could buy your version and redistribute or resell it to others, either exactly as-is, or made into their own derivative version.

Apache License 2.0 (2004):

PERTINENT SECTIONS:

[section 1] “Derivative Works” shall mean any work, whether in Source or Object form, that is based on (or derived from) the Work

[section 4a] You must give any other recipients of the Work or Derivative Works a copy of this License.

As I read it, the Apache license says NO. You cannot make an alphabet set (PNG/SVG/etc.) from the font and sell it. It would be considered a derivative work in Object form (as opposed to Source, which would apply to the original font file) that has been derived from the original work. It has very similar stipulations as the OFL – while you may give away your derivative work to others, it’s required to be covered under the exact same Apache License. So, exact same issues as the SIL OFL – you can make a derivative version, but you’d have to include the Apache License to cover it, so anyone else could then resell or redistribute your version freely.

Other “Public Domain” fonts:

Some font creators have stated that they’re putting their free fonts “into the public domain.” But that’s a weird gray area. Creative works are definitely in the public domain if they were published before 1926; those items have passed out of any copyright coverage. But new items can’t meet those same rules; you can’t backdate publication 95 years.

For anything created more recently, your work is automatically covered under copyright upon creation, and it may not be legally possible to entirely abandon those rights. Generally, folks can license their work in a way that allows all of the same freedoms as something in the public domain would have. This includes releasing items under the Creative Commons 0 license; yes, it says “public domain,” but it’s still a license that the rightsholder offers. It’s just a license that allows all uses and waives any copyright claims.

Wikipedia offers this template for those who want to release all copyright claims to their work:

Wikipedia note about CC licensing

I don’t like how short this is, but I do like one thing: it calls out the fact that truly releasing something into the public domain may not be legally possible. Then it goes on to offer (essentially, license) all uses without conditions.

If that’s offered for a font, great! But! Some may say that their work can be freely used just as you would use something in the public domain, but then they contradict that in the licensing document included in the download. One of the font foundries that I’ve seen pointed out as “public domain” has this on its website:

Fonts that you can use for anything, without paying anything, and without first asking my permission, even for any sort of commercial project.
Please do not ask permission, because it is already given. Just take and enjoy!

Sounds great, right? But this in the license document text file included in the ZIP:

Permission is hereby granted, free of charge, to any person obtaining a copy of this software and associated documentation files (the “Software”), to deal in the Software without restriction, including without limitation the rights to use, copy, modify, merge, publish, distribute, sublicense, and/or sell copies of the Software, and to permit persons to whom the Software is furnished to do so, subject to the following conditions:

The above copyright notice and this permission notice shall be included in all copies or substantial portions of the Software.

Which also makes this a NO. Just like the Apache License and SIL OFL, there’s a requirement to include the same license document with any derivative version you make. Marketplaces won’t allow you to include it, and if you sell it on your own, you’d have to allow anyone who licenses it from you to resell or redistribute as-is, or to make their own derivative versions of your work.

MY CONCLUSIONS:

You can make a derivative alphabet set made from any font released under the Apache License or the SIL OFL, which covers most fonts in the Google Fonts collection. BUT. That derivative version has to be redistributed under the same license. You can’t sell them in most marketplaces due to the requirement that you sell/distribute under the same Apache or SIL license, and if you sell them in your own shop, including the required license document means that anyone else can resell or redistribute your work.

You might be able to sell an alphabet set made from a font that’s “released to the public domain,” but you’d want to make sure to read any and all license documents included with that font. Make sure that there isn’t a requirement like the one noted above, where derivative works have to include the same free-use license document.

You may be able to sell a derivative work under a new license, if you can find a font that’s been licensed under CC0 or has been released clearly in writing from any copyright claims (including releasing “into the public domain”) … as long as that release of rights is clearly written, you have done your due diligence research to ensure that the person releasing the work in this way is the true owner of the rights, and there are no restrictions, requirements, or surprise license documents included in the ZIP dictating that your derivative work be released in any specific way or under any specific license. But be aware, there are VERY few fonts licensed this way.

Thoughts? Questions? Thoroughly-researched disagreements? :rofl: Lay ’em on me!

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