How To Avoid Common Legal Pitfalls Companies & Designers Fall Into

“Why can’t you just send me that font? It’s legal right? Can’t you just use this nice photo I saw online?”

Both companies and designers alike overlook the legal issues surrounding design when they want to “save some money or trouble”. Yet, this can result in far-reaching consequences. By examining common elements of graphic design, we can learn to avoid such legal pitfalls.

Fonts/Font Licenses


Do you know there are licensing involved even for fonts? Many people often forget that they do exist, especially with the popularity of Microsoft Word (MS) fonts. (Note that not all MS fonts are actually free to use.) These licenses occur because fonts are treated like computer codes, which can be copyrighted. According to the US Copyright Office, original “computer software” falls under copyright – a form of intellectual property protection. As such, fonts belong to this category.


If a font is free to download, it does not mean that it carries a completely free-to-use license. Broadly speaking, there are three types of font licensing  – Pay to use, Free for Personal use, and 100% free – available. Some licenses are even more specific, as they restrict fonts to certain mediums, such as mobile or desktop. Others explicitly state the number of users (or computers) allowed.  


With so many complications, it can be very confusing. The easiest way to overcome this challenge is to check out the End User License Agreement (EULA). The EULA explains the various conditions of the font. For commercial projects, the font license usually falls under the “Pay to Use” category, and requires extra payments for different uses. This is why designers cannot just give their clients fonts that they desire.


One way around this is that companies themselves can buy the font they want directly from the creator. Alternatively, the designer can opt for free legal fonts – stated clearly in the font licenses – from websites like Font Squirrel and DaFont.



The accessibility of pirated software nowadays can tempt companies – especially startups –  to use pirated software.  

However, the drawbacks can be more severe and devastating than the supposed cost savings. In fact, pirated software can bring about serious legal trouble, giving negative press coverage and hurting brand reputation immensely.  Adobe Systems, the company behind design software like Photoshop and Illustrator, sued a famous fashion brand in 2015 for using pirated versions of their software. The case was eventually settled out of court, but not before it got the attention of numerous press outlets.

Additionally, there are security risks associated with using pirated software. Computer viruses, worms and even Trojan Horses can pass through and steal key information without detection, especially since an expert hacker created such softwares. Worse still, they can ruin computers, wiping out all data found in hard drives.

Instead, companies can look to free substitutes found online to save money. For example, GIMP is a popular replacement for Photoshop. Similarly, Inkscape is a free open source software that functions as a workable alternative to Illustrator. If these options do not match up to your needs – especially in terms of compatibility – buying the legal software from the original companies themselves is the best option. Ultimately, these expenses would serve like any other long-term beneficial investments.

Images and Videos


While copying and pasting images and videos seem incredibly easy now, it can actually create unwanted legal liabilities. Coupled with the rapid growth in social media, copyright rules on images and videos can get even trickier. Contrary to popular belief, attribution (Linking or crediting the creator) is not enough. It may not hold up as a form of legal defense in court. This applies even to images or videos that do not explicitly put up a copyright notice.

The simplest solution is to check and request permission from the original creator first. Some might require you to pay them a certain amount of money, while certain individuals might just need a form of acknowledgement. In reality, there are creators who refuse to lease their work to others at all.


How do you check the status of a particular work found online? Use the Creative Commons (CC) licensing system. The latest version, CC 4.0,  is a set of globally-recognised licenses that grant users the permission to reuse the image or video in different ways. These licenses inform us about 4 major conditions.

  1. Whether we need to attribute to the source (Atrribution)

  2. If the work we create has the same legal protections/conditions as the source (Work is Share-alike)

  3. Whether the work is for commercial use or not (Non-Commercial)

  4. If we can make any alterations or modifications to the source (Derivative work)

If a Creative Commons license is not attached to a work, it is automatically assumed to be privately owned. In this case, you would have to contact the owner directly for permission. Alternatively, you can use images from stock image libraries such as ShutterstockiStock and Getty Images.

Fair Use

With all that being said, there is one legal defence available to companies and designers. Fair use originated from US Law, which states that copyrighted work can be “copied” without needing permission for transformative purposes. This means that everyone can use a piece of copyrighted work for a different purpose, usually covering parodies, educational works or commentaries. Unfortunately, there is no hard and fast rule regarding fair use. Ideally, both companies and designers should not rely on this defense, and instead focus on clearing the rights.

Want to know more about design? Read other posts, including one that informs you about the how to avoid common design mistakes.

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