My generation didn’t witness the cursed era of the 1980s and 90s, when the type industry was a jungle of font piracy. To run a sustainable foundry, you needed a certain critical mass. Only really big companies could survive.
When I started out in 2003, we were told repeatedly that the digital era would revolutionise things. All you needed was font-editing software and an internet connection. Now, there have never been so many one-person font businesses. They all deserve to thrive and be sustainable. But you simply can’t achieve that selling 10 Euro one-user licenses over and over – the volume is simply not there.
Some may think lowering prices will help because they can recoup on volume, but it’ll never be enough. As an industry, it’s time to rethink how we operate.
WE NEED A FAIRER WAY TO CHARGE
Back in the day, foundries used to charge ‘per CPU’. Our industry was painfully slow to evolve as we moved into an era of multi-core computers, or account for the fact that we no longer needed to install fonts on our printers as well as our computers. Many people use multiple computers; others have no dedicated computer at all, working entirely in the cloud.
Gradually, it became the consensus to charge by number of users, and that’s still how most foundries do it. But that still doesn’t make sense.
A global corporation might only have a couple of in-house graphic designers. So even if the company is massive and the value extracted from the font is equally massive, in practice we only end up licensing for a couple of users. There’s nothing wrong with that on paper, but it surely isn’t fair to either the foundry or the type designer.
It can be a similar story in design agencies too. Maybe half of the team have creative roles, and only half of them will work on a particular project. Agencies with 20-50 seats may still only buy a couple of licenses, even if they need more.
So why not charge according to the size of the company instead? By making it simpler we can reduce the number of honest mistakes, and this is preferable for everyone involved – believe it or not, even for those who end up paying more. And I’m going to explain why.
BIG BRANDS CRAVE PEACE OF MIND
Every company can tell you how many people work there. It’s easy to declare, and it’s straightforward to verify. It’s much, much harder to assess how many people actually need to use a particular font.
Of course, it’s not a one-to-one swap. It would be crazy for a 50-employee company to pay for 50 ‘users’ under the old pricing model. But this method hints at the financial value that will be extracted from the font, according to the scale of the business.
Larger clients will probably pay a bit more. But in my experience, global corporations want to spend the optimal amount they need to get peace of mind. And often, they’re actually relieved to know they’re fully covered with no hidden costs or backdoors.
WE SHOULD THINK MORE LIKE ART BUYERS
That’s not all that needs to change. As an industry, our vocabulary changes when we move from licensing fonts to licensing art. In advertising, for instance, it doesn’t make sense to pay five or even six figures for a worldwide font licence across all media if you only need the font for one campaign. But it’s often the only option.
We should be able to license fonts in the same way as images, or music. Custom licenses, based on a given geographical zone and timespan. Time and space are universal criteria, and easy to tick off. It may seem like a big shift for a foundry, but not for their end clients – this is the same terminology that they’ve been using for decades. Everyone breathes easier.
It’s a longstanding joke amongst design professionals that you cannot eat with exposure. But by focusing on the visibility of fonts as they are broadcast across different media, the cost of using a font in a campaign can finally fall in line with that exposure.
FAIRNESS MUST CUT BOTH WAYS
As type designers, we need fair compensation for our work, but it needs to be fair for all involved. It’s a two-way discussion, and it’s our responsibility not to overcharge where it’s clear that the cost doesn’t make sense.
When licensing a font for social media, I think it makes the most sense to charge based on total number of followers. Like total employees for a business, this is much simpler and easier to declare and verify. But there can be edge cases where a small client gets a large quote because they have a particular metric that’s off the charts.
For larger licensing projects in particular, there should always be a two-way discussion. It’s great to automate the process as much as possible in this business, but we need to remember that we’re not robots – and we’re not selling to robots either.