Typeface, Fonts, Copyrights and You
by Paul F. Watson
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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Companies: create fonts in support of their business models.
- Microsoft created several fonts for licensed inclusion with their
- Adobe created many fonts for inclusion in their software products.
- Google (https://developers.google.com/fonts/) offers over 1300 fonts
that are free for both personal and commercial use.
- Linotype (https://www.linotype.com) is a commercial font foundry and
distributor with a wide selection of commercial use licensed fonts.
- TypeRepublic (https://typerepublic.com) is a small Barcelona font
foundry offering high quality fonts sold under various use licenses.
Current prices are shown on their website.
- Organizations: GNU and SIL are both organizations with wider goals;
but in support of their goals provide both fonts and "boiler plate"
- GNU (https://www.gnu.org/software/freefont/) develops and
distributes "free software" that respects user "freedom." Several GNU
created/licensed free fonts are available including Serif, Sans and
Mono. GNU also documents the succinct GNU "boiler plate" font license.
Download of GNU fonts is most easily accomplished from sites such as
- SIL (https://software.sil.org/fonts/) supports world cultures. SIL
creates/licenses/distributes multiple fonts (including Latin, Greek,
Cyrillic and numerous obscure languages). SIL also documents the
succinct and permissive SIL OFL "boiler plate" font license. SIL
licensed fonts can be downloaded from SIL directly or from other
websites such as https://www.fontspace.com
- Individuals create fonts as artistic expression. They often license
their fonts either using recognized "boiler plate" licenses, or under
descriptions such as "Public Domain" or "free-ware." These fonts can be
downloaded from various websites including https://www.fontspace.com.
I prefer "free-use" fonts with standard licenses such as the GNU
or alternatively SIL Open Font OFL.
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.
- A license from a commercial font foundry is often long and tedious.
They are usually very specific regarding use for computer games,
web-sites, E-Books, Logo creation and printed matter. The cost and
allowed use varies greatly.
- The Google font license is extremely brief and clear and is documented
on their website.
- Organization licenses such as GNU and SIL are brief, easily understood
and may be read on Internet. Both GNU and SIL licenses authorize a wide
range of use. Whichever license is attached to downloaded/purchased
fonts should be read to ensure the intended use is authorized.
- Public Domain, Freeware, Free Use and Similar descriptions: While
Public Domain likely has clear legal meaning, other descriptions are
ambiguous, and use of fonts so described is likely indefensible.
Ambiguously authorized fonts should be approached with extreme caution
and adequate legal advice. I prefer fonts released under standard GNU or
SIL "boiler plates" as these clearly define authorized use.
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:
- 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
allow font downloads; but, I like https://www.fontspace.com
example, "Free SANS" font downloaded from fontspace.com is owned
and licensed by GNU and is truly free.
- Purchase a legal "font package" from a reputable dealer. The German
company SoftMaker currently sells a font package that includes over 7000
commercially licensed fonts for Mac. Competing products should be
- 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
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
- Some fonts are easy to read on a computer screen; but do not print
well on paper and vice versa.
- Some fonts have options including bold, italics and condensed, while
others are "bare bones."
- Some fonts include only Latin Characters (used in the US) while others
include Greek, Eastern European and etc.
- Some fonts have artistic "flair" while others are mundane.
- Some fonts create a "relaxed impression" while others have "Germanic
- Some fonts only display well in large, bold sizes appropriate for book
or other titles.
- Some have very clear license provisions, and others are "free-ware"
whatever that may mean.
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:
- Foulis Greek is a high quality, legible font similar to Arial. It has
a large selection of characters which include Latin, Greek and Eastern
European. It is available under a SIL OFL license which allows broad
commercial use. While contributions are always welcome, Foulis Greek is
available for free and can be downloaded from https://www.fontspace.com
- Free SANS is a product of GNU. It is a simple but very legible font
distributed under GNU license. Contributions are welcome, but it is
available for free. Download from https:// www.fontspace.com GNU
has also created other high quality fonts that are available.
- Comfortaa is a rather modern looking font that prints beautifully, but
displays poorly on a low quality computer screens. It creates a "relaxed
impression," and is available under SIL OFL license.
- Balgruf font has a rather limited selection of high quality characters
that display well in large sizes and is suitable for book or other
titles. It has a lovely, "old world" style reminiscent of a professional
scribe working with a broad tip pen. It is available under the SIL OFL
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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