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I am making some histograms for an upcoming manuscript. My advisors hate the default font of my plotting library (matplotlib to be precise) so they asked me to change it to something they are familiar with. I followed some instructions online and change the font to Helvetica. Everyone is happy.

That is, until I was told by someone that I need a license to publish work in that font. I searched online very briefly. It does seem like Helvetica is not a free font and that I have to pay for a license to redistribute work written with that font. However, I am not familiar with copyright laws so I can't be certain if my understanding is correct.

Do I need to pay for Helvetica? If so, am what font can I use if I don't want to pay? The first font that comes to my mind is Times new roman, but I am not sure if that font is free either.

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    In theory, maybe there is a licensing issue. In practice, nobody will ever care.
    – Buzz
    Oct 13, 2023 at 2:51
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    Times New Roman and Helvetica are at sort of opposite ends of the spectrum. One is a serif font, the other is sans serif. Surely there is a better replacement for Helvetica than one from the complete other side of fonts... Oct 13, 2023 at 3:47
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    What font does the publishing venue prefer? (Granted, I don't think I ever bothered to look to closely at my figure fonts except to make them fit, but in principle it's the venue's vote that counts.)
    – Anonymous
    Oct 13, 2023 at 5:03
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    @Anonymous: I would assume that most publishers will use their own fonts for text, and not care one way or the other about fonts in plots - simply because having most academics understand enough about fonts to ensure they would follow any particular guideline is very much a losing proposition. I don't know of any guidelines along these lines, beyond "make your plots legible in terms of resolution/size". Oct 13, 2023 at 5:38
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    There are plenty of free alternatives that look very similar, see for example graphicdesign.stackexchange.com/questions/15462/…
    – morxa
    Oct 13, 2023 at 7:52

4 Answers 4

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I am not a lawyer. This should not be treated as a legal advice, which would also differ by jurisdictions.

It is true that Helvetica is a proprietary font, so are most fonts that come pre-installed with proprietary operating systems like Windows and macOS.

If you have acquired the font through a legitimate channel, for example, if it comes pre-installed on an OS that you have a licence for, then you may already have a licence that covers a standard usage like this. For example, according to the FAQ about Windows-supplied font, you shouldn't have to worry about most typical use cases if you have a Windows licence that allows commercial use.

(As far as I know, Helvetica does not come with Windows, but it comes with macOS. The macOS licence agreement seems a little more restrictive about "embedding" fonts ["you may only embed fonts in content if that is permitted by the embedding restrictions accompanying the font in question. These embedding restrictions can be found in the Font Book/Preview/Show Font Info panel."], but checking Helvetica and a few other fonts reveals that they come with no embedding restrictions, so it should be fine for most use cases.)

If you just downloaded Helvetica (for free) from some website on the Internet, then you probably do not have the appropriate licence. In practice, this might not lead to problems, especially for something as ubiquitous as Helvetica, but you might as well use something else that you actually have the rights to.

There are also open-source alternatives that you can use, for example something like FreeSans or many other fonts on Google Fonts.

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In theory, Helvetica is a proprietary font, and you'd need to buy a license from Monotype to legally use it outside of personal use. In practice, it's unlikely anyone would care unless Monotype stumbles upon your work and decides to be fussy for your unlicensed font choice.

There are lots of free font alternatives you can use if you'd prefer to avoid that possibility. Google Fonts is a great place to look for those. A common replacement I see is Roboto, an open source sans-serif font made by Google.

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  • I have a Mac, which does not come with Roboto. But I also have Microsoft Word, which apparently does come with Roboto. Yes, Roboto does look a lot like Heletica.
    – GEdgar
    Oct 15, 2023 at 13:43
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I generally try to use Atkinson Hyperlegible in my plots. Nobody has every complained. It's also much more similar to Helvetica than Times New Roman and is free with permissive licence for this sort of thing.

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Helvetica is the default font in MATLAB; which, in academic STEM circles, is used fairly often. I have used this font in my plots in a few publications and I have never once even considered this problem. I think you are fine.

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