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An examination of Fontesk’s deceptive font distribution practices, and how type designers can safeguard their typographic creations from exploitation.

An illustration of a thief trying to steal a work-in-progress font file from an online repository, to redistribute in their website, and profit from ad placement.

On August 29th of this year, Xiaoyuan Gao from Not Your Type Foundry posted a statement on her Instagram addressing the unauthorized use of her font files by a font distribution website. The website in question is, a platform where users can access and download numerous “high-quality” “free fonts for commercial use” and “open-source fonts.”

In what ways did Fontesk overstep their boundaries in utilising the fonts that Gao had generously uploaded online for free?

To understand this, we first need to grasp how “free fonts” work.

‘Free’ in the absolute sense

The fonts obtained from Fontesk differ from those you can find on Why is that? For individuals seeking fonts for business and advertising purposes, there are complications with many of the free fonts available for download on Dafont. Sometimes, these so-called “free” fonts are merely samples, offering limited characters, and excluding punctuations and other symbols.

Font providers typically require payment to access the full character set, and additional charges may apply if you intend to use them in a commercial context, necessitating a license for such usage.

This is precisely why Fontesk proudly promotes its free fonts as both commercial-free and open-source. Users are not required to purchase costly licenses to employ them in their business endeavours. In the case of open-source fonts, designers can modify these fonts and share them freely with others, allowing for versatile use. This is a level of freedom that many fonts on Dafont and other paid font sites do not allow. It is this significant flexibility in font usage that makes downloading fonts from Fontesk an appealing and cost-effective choice.

An illustration of a fictional download page of a font, stating that it is under the OFL, and it is free for personal and commercial use.

What makes fonts commercial-free and open-source?

The majority of these free fonts fall under the Open Font License* (OFL), which was created by SIL International. This license allows fonts to be used, modified, and distributed freely, as long as the resulting fonts remain under the Open Font License. The only restriction under this license is that users cannot use the same font name if they wish to share their edited version of the font online.

*It’s important to note that type designers also use other font licenses, such as the Apache and Creative Commons licenses. Users who download fonts should carefully read and identify the specific licenses attached to them to avoid any violations of rights when using these fonts.

The creation of the Open Font License had a significant purpose from the outset. SIL International, a non-profit organization, had several objectives*, one of which was to help document and preserve languages that might be in danger of becoming obsolete while promoting literacy.

*It’s worth mentioning that SIL International is affiliated with evangelical Christians and has a mission to increase Bible literacy in support of their missionary activities. Consequently, certain countries, especially those with indigenous communities, have banned SIL International from their territories (p. 182).

Whether the aim is to enhance accessibility to minority languages or simply an act of generosity, many typographers have chosen to use the OFL for their fonts, making them available online for others to freely use in their projects. Given this context, one might wonder why Xiaoyuan Gao is upset with the way Fontesk is handling her font files.

An illustration of a fictional online repository page featuring a font file, with a documentation, stating it’s a “work-in-progress” and not for publishing on any websites.

It wasn’t done yet

Gao intends to release her fonts through the Velvetyne type foundry in the near future. Therefore, when Fontesk published her fonts on their site before the official announcement, they were still a work in progress and were not yet meant for public release.

These files, which are still under development, are stored on a cloud-based service called GitHub. Many open-source software developers, including typographers, use GitHub or GitLab to store, track, and collaborate on various software projects, such as fonts. This sort of collaboration was true of Velvetyne and Gao’s font project.

During our email interview, she further explained, “Putting OFL projects on GitHub doesn’t mean anyone can just take it for granted. Fontesk never contacted me about what they are planning to do with my files.

There is a “READ.ME” file in my Github repository — which clearly mentions my font will be published at Velvetyne Type Foundry, and normal people will at least check if the font is released or not before doing anything with it.”

A portion of the first illustration in this article, showing a thief plotting and redistributing a work-in-progress font unethically.

Is Fontesk at fault?

While the fonts themselves are open-source and can be redistributed, Fontesk ignored Gao’s specified publishing conditions and proceeded to release her work prematurely on their platform without her knowledge.

While Fontesk has made efforts to provide attribution to the type designers on their website, three other aspects of their font distribution practices raise questions:

Font quality

The in-progress font files that Gao and other users have on GitHub/GitLab are stored publicly. Fontesk takes advantage of this by searching for fonts in these public repositories, extracting them, and reuploading them to their website.

With this approach, can Fontesk still claim that their curated fonts are of “high quality” when they are essentially using people’s unfinished work for publication?

By offering these fonts for download and regular use online, Fontesk not only puts their reputation at risk but also jeopardises the reputation of the type designers. Users may encounter certain bugs or unfinished character sets and express their dissatisfaction. They may attribute the subpar font quality to poor production, when, in reality, the typographer has not yet completed the font project.

Ad placements

The OFL prohibits users from obtaining fonts and selling them for profit. However, Fontesk incorporates ads on their web pages. Consequently, whenever individuals visit their website to download fonts and encounter these ads, Fontesk receives compensation from the advertising agency based on web page viewership.

Needless to say, Gao wasn’t impressed. She stated, “Fontesk just steals people’s work because they can… I think they are very aware of their dirty business; there are tons [of ads on their website] so that they can make money out of people’s work.”

By earning from people’s work (including mine!) through ads, Fontesk’s website is built on the backs of countless hardworking typographers who were exploited without their knowledge. Gao adds, “As a type designer and owner of a type foundry, taking and publishing people’s open-source type design projects without asking permission from the creators is so messed up and way too disrespectful. I would never do that because respecting people’s hard work is the bare minimum.”

Their hostile reaction

Upon discovering Fontesk’s actions and requesting the removal of her font files, Gao was met with a resolute refusal, and they even went so far as to block her IP address from accessing their website.

Although they eventually removed her fonts (the specific font download page is now inaccessible), their handling of the situation has been nothing short of discourteous. Not only did they release unfinished fonts without the designer’s consent, but they also chose to be less than transparent with Gao and displayed disrespect by attempting to keep her fonts available on their site.

This further tarnishes their reputation as a font distributor. One can only wonder how many fonts they may have clandestinely acquired without the knowledge or permission of the typographers, all to discreetly profit from them.

An illustration of a fictional pop-up on a website, requiring users to sign up for a premium membership to download more fonts, or to continue downloading free by watching ads.

A bigger issue

In the broader context, Fontesk is just one among several questionable font websites engaging in more serious infractions. For instance, there’s FontKe, a font distribution site based in China, which permits users to download only one free font from their server before requiring them to pay for memberships and virtual currency to access additional fonts, including those intended to be open-source or non-redistributable from their original source.

To compound the issue, FontKe does not take the initiative to provide proper attribution and licenses for each of these fonts, something that any reputable font retailer or distributor would have done and displayed upfront. Instead, they expect users to independently seek out individual font licenses, and they claim innocence if users inadvertently violate font usage rights.

Furthermore, they have a quotation form for users to inquire about the pricing of font licenses, even for fonts that should already be attributed to the OFL. I attempted to request a quote for one of their free, open-source fonts, but I received no response from them, casting doubt even on this aspect of their service.

An illustration of a font file being in front of a shield, which blocks users from accessing the font for unehtical use.

What can designers do to protect their fonts?

Recognizing that the OFL is written in a way that can be easily exploited, type designers can first opt to create their own written agreements, often referred to as End User License Agreements (EULAs) that users must adhere to.* This can help prevent the misuse of their fonts. The agreement may include restrictions on redistributing the fonts on other websites, even if modifications have been made. Designers can also use this opportunity to incorporate clauses in their agreements to provide additional safeguards against unethical practices, such as hate speech.

*To learn more about what designers can and should do regarding EULAs, you can find additional information in my other essay here.

Of course, no amount of agreements can completely prevent thieves from attempting to illegally profit from the fonts of hardworking typographers. Fortunately, with a strong online presence, Gao was able to utilise her network and social media to expose Fontesk’s unethical practices and safeguard her work.

Many artists have also turned to social media to shed light on companies misusing their artwork for profit. Artists on Twitter discovered that bots were taking people’s artwork from the platform and selling it on T-shirts. To combat this, users created copyright-infringing art to lure these bots into extracting the images, intending to sell them as printed T-shirts on their websites. This tactic worked, prompting distributors to promptly remove these listings to avoid legal repercussions.

Unfortunately, the battle against such thefts remains an ongoing challenge. In cases like these, it’s crucial for artists of all backgrounds, whether established or emerging, to continue supporting one another by exposing and taking action against unscrupulous websites that seek to profit from illicit means.

Some screenshots from the homepage of type foundry, Etcetera Type Company.
Etcetera Type Company is an open-source type foundry offering high-quality, free fonts. (Image has been recoloured to fit the article’s colour theme.)

Reputable distributors

We can also take steps to ensure the fonts we use in our projects are sourced responsibly. It’s a good practice to verify whether the fonts we intend to use are obtained from reputable websites and if their licenses align with our specific use cases before incorporating them.

Whether you’re in search of free/open-source fonts or even paid ones, it’s always advisable to seek out the original websites that host these fonts. This is crucial because legitimate font distributors provide the proper licenses and usage conditions, which illegal distributors may attempt to omit or modify in their files.

The founders of an open-source type foundry, Death of Typography, have thoughtfully compiled a list of reputable font distribution websites offering high-quality fonts, including some that are open-source. You can access the list here. Many thanks to Yen for this valuable curation!

If you have any other reputable free font websites to recommend, please do share them in the comments. Additionally, consider showing your support by expressing gratitude to the type foundries and designers through their social media channels. After all, they are creating and sharing these fonts generously from the heart!

A screenshot of type foundry, Grilli Type’s homepage.
Grilli Type is an independent Swiss type foundry offering in-house fonts, with some typefaces created over several years before release. Various license prices are offered upfront before purchase. (Image has been recoloured to fit the article’s colour theme.)

Paying for fonts

As I mentioned in my review of the Free Font Index, open-source fonts play a crucial role in preserving the written works of linguistic communities that are often overlooked. They also encourage aspiring typographers to learn by reverse-engineering these fonts, making high-quality typemaking accessible to everyone.

However, these positive contributions can only continue if there is sufficient funding to archive and maintain these fonts online, as the people behind them also need to earn a living. Whenever possible, consider paying for fonts to support the field of typography. Paid font licenses are priced the way they are because it can take days, or even years, for type foundries to create complete character sets and font families, making them ideal for use in your documents and design projects.

This commitment to quality can also be observed in how professional type foundries* present font specimens and allow users to test their fonts directly on their websites. To enhance the user experience during font testing, professional websites often choose not to include ads to avoid distractions or quietly earn from your visit before you decide to make a purchase.

*There is a difference between certain type foundries and online font retailers in how they operate and pay type designers. As a rule of thumb, it is always better to support independent type foundries than commercial moguls (like Monotype, who owns MyFonts).

If you would like more information regarding this, please feel free to let me know in the comments and I may write an article about it in the future.

An illustration of multiple 3D visual interpretations of font files, stacked together in various piles and sizes.

We’re grateful for the increasing accessibility of high-quality, free fonts online. It’s thanks to the efforts of type designers that platforms like Canva and Google Docs can offer a wider selection of fonts.

However, this accessibility comes with the responsibility for all of us to use these fonts ethically and not take advantage of the kindness of others, as seen in Fontesk’s treatment of Gao’s work. Let’s support the proper use of free and open-source fonts by downloading them from official sources and giving professional type design the respect it deserves.

How a font website dishonestly earns money was originally published in UX Collective on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.






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