TYPE DESIGN INFORMATION PAGE last updated on Fri Jan 18 22:04:21 EST 2019






Why fonts cannot be copyrighted

Richard Kinch on the 1988 ruling by the US Copyright Office's office:


A Victory for American Freedom of the Press.

BELOW IS THE OFFICIAL SUMMARY of the US Copyright Office's September 1988 determination that font software is not copyrightable (For 6 pages of full text, see the Federal Register reference). This decision extended to font software the LONG-STANDING Copyright Office policy and clear intent of Congress that letterforms in general are not copyrightable. The implication is that font software in the form of bit maps, metric files, parametric outline descriptions, and so on may be freely copied; and that ANY COPYRIGHT ASSERTED BY THE ORIGINATOR IS NONSENSE and in fact may endanger the copyright on associated software. The Copyright Office upholds the decision as necessary to freedom of the press, since if fonts were protected by copyright, virtually nothing could be copied since most documents use licensed fonts.

It appears to me that computer users are not widely taking advantage of the benefits of this decision, probably because it has not gotten much publicity. OF COURSE THE FONT PUBLISHERS CHARGING AS MUCH AS HUNDREDS OF DOLLARS FOR A SINGLE FONT DO NOT WANT YOU TO KNOW ABOUT THE STATE OF AFFAIRS.

While fonts may be freely copied, some restrictions do apply to ancillary items. Computer programs to generate fonts are copyrightable like any ordinary software, except to the extent that they contain data for the fonts. Thus a font scaling program is copyrightable, but the font outlines used by such a program would not be, nor would the bit map or metrics output from the program.

Another restriction arises when using trademarks like "Helvetica" without permission of the owner. For example, you can copy the Helvetica font but you cannot call it Helvetica, because that name happens to be a trademark. Perhaps users could standardize on some public-domain "code names" for the trademark names of popular fonts. I have seen some software publishers using their own names for "clone" font software with a note like, "similar to Helvetica" and a fine-print trademark acknowledgement. That is, they hint that you are getting Helvetica, while skirting the trademark issue with the "similarity" language. Or, they use a synonymous name (like "Swiss" for "Helvetica"). Whether these tricks would really protect you against trademark infringement if you tried to peddle third-party fonts is an unsettled matter.

Still other restrictions on your copying font software apply if you have signed a license or other contract with the font publisher whereby you agreed to limit your copying of the fonts. Such a license might conceivably prevent you from copying or selling font software sold to you by given publisher. But anyone else whe has not signed such a contract and has gotten possession of a font could copy it freely, even if that publisher only distributes its fonts to licensees. The same would apply to attempts at trade secret protection, although it is hard to see how a font could be protected as a trade secrect since to use it is to disclose it.

Bulletin board sysops probably should check the truth of what I am saying with a "competent legal advisor" before they start a bonanza of font uploading.

Standard disclaimer: I am not a lawyer. However, when you read the summary below and look up the full text in the Federal Register, I am confident you will agree that the decision is clear and direct to the effect that fonts may be freely copied. I hope that this will permit us as users to start sharing fonts through all convenient means.

Richard Kinch

Kinch Computer Company

501 S Meadow St

Ithaca, NY 14850

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Luc Devroye ⦿ School of Computer Science ⦿ McGill University Montreal, Canada H3A 2K6 ⦿ lucdevroye@gmail.com ⦿ http://luc.devroye.org ⦿ http://luc.devroye.org/fonts.html