Until fairly recently, website designers have been limited to designing with a handful of fonts that came standard on most computers. Any use of an interesting display font required the designer to create an image using Photoshop or something similar, and any change to the text would need the image to be re-done.
But no longer! The recently developed @font-face CSS property has made possible to embed font files into a website itself, so now designers can use whatever fonts we want.
Or can we?
The legalities surrounding the use of fonts have always been complicated, and probably always will be. Most importantly, just about every font out there was created by a designer who needs to be paid for his or her work, a concept that the world of computer use is still coming to grips with.
Additionally, the font files on your computer are software, and as such are subject to the same ownership and copyright laws as any other piece of software. This is what can potentially limit a website’s use of a particular font – if a designer wants to embed a font, the use of the font software needs to be cleared.
Many type foundries (the companies that create and release commercial fonts) have responded to this development by offering complicated membership schemes where they host your web fonts for you. This is not optimal as your website is now reliant on an outside link to display its fonts properly. One alternative is to use one of the many free tools out there to convert your font files to the web font format and host them with the rest of your website, which is fine unless those font files are under copyright. Some font websites, like the excellent FontSquirrel.com, offer free full web font packages that include all the files you need.
So, while designers have much more freedom to design for the web using whatever fonts they choose, we still need to look at the legalities and practicalities. I think the best bet is to build up a library of copyright cleared, embeddable fonts to use. With thousands of fonts available, it will still be much better than the handful we used to be stuck with.