Why Fonts Cannot be Copyrighted
US COPYRIGHT OFFICE RULES FONT SOFTWARE NOT COPYRIGHTABLE
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
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
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.
Kinch Computer Company
501 S Meadow St
Ithaca, NY 14850
Telephone (607) 273-0222
FAX (607) 273-0484
From the Federal Register, Vol 53, No 189, Thursday, September 29, 1988.
Copyright Office (Docket No. 86-4)
Policy Decision on the Copyrightability of Digitized Typefaces.
Agency: Copyright Office, Library of Congress.
Action: Notice of policy decision.
SUMMARY: The purpose of this notice is to inform the public that the
Copyright Office has decided that digitized representations of typeface
designs are not registrable under the Copyright Act because they do not
constitute original works of authorship. The digitized representations of
typefaces are neither original computer programs (as defined in 17 USC 101),
nor original databases, nor any other original work of authorship.
Registration will be made for original computer programs written to
control the generic digitization process, but registration will not be
made for the data that merely represents an electronic depiction of a
particular typeface or individual letterforms. If this master computer
program includes data that fixes or depicts a particular typeface,
typefont, or letterform, the registration application must disclaim
copyright in that uncopyrightable data.
EFFECTIVE DATE: September 28, 1988.
Excerpts from the full text:
...Variations of typographic ornamentation [or] "mere lettering" are
not copyrightable.... "It is patent that typeface is an industrial design in
which the design cannot exist independently and separately as a work of art."
[Eltra Corp v. Ringer, 579 F.2d 294 (4th Cir. 1978)].
The decision in Eltra Corp. v. Ringer clearly comports with the intention
of the Congress. Whether typeface designs should be protected by
copyright was considered and specifically rejected by Congress in passing
the Copyright Act of 1978.
...Before the advent of digitized typeface technology, arguments were
made that, in creating new typeface designs, artists expended thousands of
hours of effort in preparing by hand the drawings of letters and
characters that ultimately would lead to the creation of an original type
face design. After several years of consideration and a public
hearing, the Copyright Office found that this effort did not result in a work
... There are fewer authorship choices involved in transforming an
existing analog typeface to an electronic font than in using the
digitization process to create a new typeface design. Yet clearly the
typeface design and the process of creating it are uncopyrightable whether
the process is digital or analog.
... Typeface users ... in accordance with a congressional decision not
to protect typefaces, are entitled to copy this uncopyrightable subject
matter. ... The congressional decision ... reflects a concern about
inappropriate protection of the vehicles for reproducing the printed word.