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Typeface, Fonts, Copyrights and You

by Paul F. Watson

December 2021

Disclaimer: The following article resulted from the author's self interested research into US copyright law. Despite offering general information, it is not intended as a replacement for professional advice. Emphasis on US copyright law is likewise not intended to suggest we should callously ignor copyright standards of other countries which can be quite different.

Should We be Concerned about Font Copyrights? When we use computers for non-commercial purposes, computer sales infrastructure usually keeps us within legal bounds. But when personal use computers are applied to commercial projects, personal use licenses are often insufficient. The following pages describe copyright law as it applies to fonts, and will describe how legal compliance for commercial projects can be easily and affordably achieved.

What's the difference between Typeface and Font: Typeface refers to the geometric/artistic shape of characters. Traditionally, US copyright law viewed typeface as an industrial product which became an attribute of printed documents. From that perspective, US copyright law did not recognize a need for typeface artistic protection. This viewpoint persisted until the computer revolution created the need for "vector technology" which enabled word processor use of various artistically rendered character sets. It was successfully argued that such vector expression is a form of  "computer program," and thus protected by US copyright law. Today, the basic US situation is that character geometry is not protected as artistic expression, but  "vector expression " of characters used by computers is protected as a software product.

US copyright protection of fonts as software has some interesting consequences:
  1. Because geometric shape of characters is not protected, the law seems to allow copying of geometric shape, rendered by newly created "vector expression." In practice, this means alternative fonts having practically identical artistic shape compete in the market place.
  2. The struggle of companies to protect income streams has shifted from "legality of typeface use," to licensing details of computer operating systems used to create text documents and other products.
  3. Emerging technologies which embed "vector expression" of typeface (fonts) within a distributed product create new licensing issues. Two areas of interest are E-Books, and also Internet Web Pages. While most E-Book readers are equipped with one or more fonts licensed for their use, it is also possible to embed a particular font within an E-Book to ensure pages are displayed as intended. When this is done, each E-Book sale constitutes a font distribution which may not be covered by font license. Much the same situation applies to Web Pages; however, the degree of public exposure (and opportunity for cascading copyright theft) is greatly elevated.

Who Creates Typefaces and Fonts?

Typefaces were invented to support the printing press and have been created for hundreds of years. They are often traceable to the creator with "Century" typeface first appearing in 1894. The geometric shape of characters for many traditional typefaces is clearly Public Domain; but, geometric shape alone is inadequate for computer use. Vectorized expression of typeface (i.e. font)  was invented to support computers circa 1980. It is this vector expression known as "font" that is protected by US Copyright law. Fonts are thus of recent origin and are created by companies, organizations and individuals.

Fonts for Personal vs. Commercial Use: Microcomputers contain operating systems with "piggy-backed" font license from Microsoft, Apple or Linux. When a computer system is sold, the intended use is usually clear, and only "noncommercial" end user licenses are extended for personal use computers. While Internet information supports this conclusion for Windows computers, the documentation chain is far less clear for Apple and Linux based systems.

The private individual who prepares school reports, drafts personal letters and posts noncommercial information on his/her blog, is likely compliant with font licenses. But when a "personal use" computer is used for monetary gain,  font license violation has likely occurred and the user assumes added burden to ensure otherwise.

What does a Font License Look Like? I have looked at several font licenses, both commercial and from organizations.

Font Alternatives for Commercial Use: There are three realistic options for obtaining and installing commercial use fonts on your personal computer. Such fonts install easily and integrate seamlessly on both Apple and PC Windows computers. It is likely so for Linux. Often, these fonts may be downloaded for free, and their use license identified. Options for achieving commercial font license compliance follow:

  1. Download and use a publicly available font that includes a clear license. Some are free, and others are available at reasonable cost. The license should be downloaded and read to ensure it allows your intended use. Either the SIL OpenFont OFL or the GNU license is preferred for their clarity and generous terms of use. There are many web-sites that allow font downloads; but,  I like https://www.fontspace.com because downloads install easily and  identify terms of use. As an example, "Free SANS" font  downloaded from fontspace.com is owned and licensed by GNU and is truly free.
  2. Purchase a legal "font package" from a reputable dealer. The German company SoftMaker currently sells a font package that includes over 7000 fonts with generous terms of use. The Apple Applications site offers commercially licensed fonts for Mac. Competing products should be available.
  3. Research your word processor and/or operating system to ensure your intended use is authorized. Internet search will identify useful information from Microsoft regarding fonts included with Windows operating systems.

Are All Fonts Created Equal?  High quality fonts normally distributed with computer software falsely encourages us to believe that all fonts are the same aside from artistic properties. This is not true. There is great quality variation. Some of the more important considerations follow:

If you are looking for a great commercial font,  it may take 2 or 3 hours before you find something attractive that displays well; but,  I believe it is time well spent.

Examples of High Quality Fonts Available for Download: There are many high quality fonts available with clear license which may be obtained at small or no cost. Examples follow:

Conclusion: When computers are used for non-commercial purposes, the infrastructure of computer sales will likely keep us within legal bounds. But when computers are used for commercial gain, license provisions typically included with "home use" computers are likely insufficient. When an individual "free-lances" a company Logo, creates the cover for a self published book, or creates a brilliant T-shirt intended for market, more robust licenses are needed.

Bringing one's creation into font compliance need not be difficult, expensive or time consuming. It can be done by downloading an attractive font, and its accompanying license from one of the many web-sites. Terms such as "free use fonts" should be ignored. The user should download and read the (usually brief) font license. My preference is for either GNU or SIL OFL licensed fonts.

As a community, we should be concerned with the well-being of the whole. I personally downloaded several fonts for evaluation; but, upon release and sales of my pending book on Weibull Statistics, I will be donating to creators of fonts actually used. If your circumstance permits, I am hopeful you will do likewise.

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