The Law on Fonts and Typefaces: Frequently Asked Questions Ross Kimbarovsky | March 23rd, 2011

The right typeface is often the key to a great logo design, graphic or web design. But there’s much confusion and misinformation about typefaces, fonts and the law.

Many people do not understand the law governing the use of typefaces and fonts. Others incorrectly assume that they can freely use any typeface or font for any project.

When you purchase a commercial font, you are purchasing a license to use the font software. Your rights and obligations are defined in the End User License Agreement (EULA). Those agreements will vary among fonts and among font makers – so read them very carefully to understand what you can and cannot do with the fonts you’re licensing. For example, some agreements will restrict the number of computers on which you can install a font.

How is a font different from a typeface?

Technically, a “font” is a computer file or program (when used digitally) that informs your printer or display how a letter or character is supposed to be shown. A “typeface” is a set of letters, numbers and other symbols whose forms are related by repeating certain design elements that are consistently applied (sometimes called glyphs), used to compose text or other combination of characters.

Although many people would call “Helvetica” a font, it’s actually a typeface. The software that tells your display or printer to show a letter in “Helvetica” is the font.

What is copyright?

Copyright is a form of legal protection provided to those who create original works. Under the 1976 Copyright Act (United States), the copyright owner has the exclusive right to reproduce, adapt, distribute, publicly perform and publicly display the work. Any or all of these rights can be licensed, sold or donated to another party. One does not need to register a work with the U.S. Copyright Office for it to be automatically protected by copyright law (registration does have benefits – but we won’t be covering those in this article). For more about copyright law, you can read Everything Marketers Need to Know To Avoid Violating Copyright Law and Small Business Legal Issues: Copyright Basics.

Does copyright law protect typefaces and fonts?

Generally, copyright law in the U.S. does not protect typefaces. Fonts may be protected as long as the font qualifies as computer software or a program (and in fact, most fonts are programs or software). Bitmapped fonts are considered to be computerized representations of a typeface (and are not protected by copyright law). On the other hand, scalable fonts (because they are incorporated as part of a program or software) are protected by copyright.

This means that copyright law (at least in the U.S.) protects only the font software, not the artistic design of the typeface.

You should remember that copyright law, and more specifically, as it relates to typefaces and fonts, varies by country. For example, the U.S. may be the only country in the western world not to recognize intellectual property rights in typeface design. The U.S. Copyright Office has unequivocally determined that fonts are not subject to protection as artistic works under the 1976 Copyright Act.

In contrast, Germany recognized in 1981 that typeface designs can be protected by copyright as original works. England also allows typeface designs to be protected by copyright (since 1989).

Doesn’t the U.S. have to follow the copyright law of other countries under international treaties?

Yes and No. All of the major copyright treaties and agreements to which the U.S. is a party (such as the Berne Convention) operate under a common principle (called “national treatment”) which holds that a country must treat foreigners and locals equally. That means, among other things, that the U.S. is not obligated to provide greater protection to works from other countries than it provides to works produced in the U.S.

Does this mean you can copy typefaces without worrying about copyright law?

Some argue that you can copy a font (by recreating it yourself) and as long as you don’t copy the computer program, you’re not violating the law (in the U.S.). How might you do this? Among other ways, you can lawfully print every glyph on a printer, scan the image and then trace each image on your computer (none of this would involve copying the software or program representing the fonts).

This gets a bit muddied when you consider that fonts are often tweaked and used as part of a larger design. For example, a typeface may be customized and used as part of a logo design. While the typeface itself is not subject to copyright protection in the U.S. (even if the company name is otherwise trademarked), the logo design itself might be protected as an artistic piece, taking into account the arrangement of letters, use of space, organizations, colors, and other creative aspects of the design. A good example of this is the Coca Cola typeface – the typeface is protected because it is the logo.

Does patent law protect typefaces?

Sometimes. Typeface designs can be patented but typically are not. Moreover, even those typeface designs that have been patented were patented some time ago and nearly all of the design patents have expired.

Does trademark law protect typefaces?

Trademark law protects only the name of a typeface, but not the design of the typeface.

Can you use “free” fonts without worrying about the law?

Maybe. Although many free fonts allow unrestricted use (including use for commercial projects), “free” fonts can sometimes be fonts that are illegally copied. Be careful and make sure that the fonts you are using come from a trusted source and that you understand your rights and obligations.

Can you license a font to a client?

Typically, your right to sub-license a font is governed by the EULA. You cannot send the client a font unless the EULA specifically permits you to do so. This means that if the client will need the font, they will be required to purchase a license to use it.

Most logo designers avoid problems related to font licensing by converting their logotype to outlines (in a program like Adobe Illustrator) and sending the client a vectorized outline (but not the font).

Three Questions To Ask When Using Fonts In Your Designs

1. Are you legally allowed to use the font? Many fonts are sold commercially and cannot be used by people who do not purchase those fonts from proper vendors.

2. Is your intended use permissible? Some font licensing agreements may restrict ways that you can use the font. Review the agreements carefully when in doubt.

3. Can you sell and/or send a copy of the font to your client? Typically, at least for commercial fonts, the answer is NO. Your client will be required to purchase the font. One way to avoid this is to outline the font (as described above) and provide the client a vectorized outline.

Do you have other questions about fonts and typefaces and the law or useful tips based on your own practice? I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

image credit (Helvetica movie poster): imjustcreative

image credit (second photo): Nick Sherman

Please remember that legal information is not the same as legal advice. This post may not address all relevant business or legal issues that are unique to your situation and you should always seek legal advice from a licensed attorney.

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  • ShadowClaa

    Hello! I used a font that’s stated as free for personal use for our website logo. The font/logo is not used for any commercial purpose at all and there is no license file. Yesterday the owner of the font sent us a message that he want a big amount of money for the font … he sent us the same link from the website we got it (still no license file to explain clearly how we can use it or any purchase option – but the mail of the owner is there so it’s not a scam i guess).

    We’re going to change the font to something 100% free to avoid any trouble. My question is….is this ok for the owner to do this even if we don’t even have the font anymore and only the modified typeface vectorised as a logo?

  • Ross Kimbarovsky

    The reputation of the site from which you download (or buy) a font is important. There are far too many sites that simply don’t do a good job on checking the licenses for the fonts they distribute (and yet they make many claims about the fonts being free). It’s always a good idea to deal with reputable sites/font vendors.

    To address your specific question: you might consider contacting the site where you obtained the font to see if they can help. If there’s no license file and the link the purported owner is sharing is from the same site, you obviously could not have known that the font requires any type of payment. This is not a good defense to copyright infringement however (see my post on this, which addresses a number of different related issues: https://blog.crowdspring.com/2016/10/marketing-copyright-law/).

    Since you can’t get any clarity on licensing from the site or the purported owner of the font, it’s always a good idea to change to another font. There are many legitimately free fonts that are both good and without questions, free for commercial and non-commercial use.

    I answer the question about vectorized logos in the post above.

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  • Dustin

    Hi, I have a small company that makes t-shirts and sports jerseys. I am currently working on some designs and I am wondering how it would apply if I were to use the fonts that professional teams use on their uniforms. For example if I used the same font as the Golden State Warriors on a t-shirt, but it said Oakland instead of Golden State is this violating any copyright laws? Thanks

  • Ross Kimbarovsky

    Unless, in your example, the Golden State Warriors font is proprietary, the font license will dictate how you can use the font. Depending on the situation, trademark law could also come into play, but that’s a pretty fact-specific question that you’ll want to discuss with an attorney.

  • Mina

    Hello, I have a question. As a part of my student assignment I’ve created a logo in which for the title I used a font that is supposedly free for both commercial and non-commercial use.

    Recently I got an offer from an international publishing company that wants to publish my logo in their new edition on contemporary logo design, so I guess it should be regarded as non-commercial too,since I won’t be paid for this either.

    However, I am still confused because when I read the licence that goes with the font first it said “You may use the free fonts to create images on any surface such as computer screens, paper,web pages, photographs, movie credits, printed material, T-shirts, and other surfaces where the image is a fixed size.
    You may use the licensed fonts to create EPS files or other scalable drawings.” etc….

    I guess a logo could be viewed as an image,so the rules could apply to this.

    But then it said: “You may not resell or redistribute the free fonts itself or any derivative works based on the free fonts itself without Foundry’s prior written consent.”

    Is a logo considered a derivative work? Or,lets say, a poster in which a designer uses a font which is not his own?

    These statements are SOOO contradictory to me-because statement no 1 says using font on printed matters is allowed ( which assumes that it will be redistributed in one way or another! ) but then statement no.2 says it is NOT allowed.

    I am totally confused! I would appreciate your quick reply.:-)

  • Ross Kimbarovsky

    Congrats on having your logo included in the edition on contemporary logo design. Very impressive.

    To answer your question: a derivative work includes aspects of a pre-existing, copyrighted work. Think of it as a new version. For example, if you take that font, modify the elements, the new font would be a derivative work of the original font set. So you would not be allowed, under the terms of the license you quoted in your note, to sell or distribute the derivative work without the consent of Foundry (presumably the entity that licensed the original free font).

    It would make no sense, and would render the core licensing language moot, if ANY work created using that font was considered a derivative work. But again, one needs to review the FULL terms of a license to understand what is allowed and what is prohibited. In this case, it’s impossible to answer without the rest of the license terms. Assuming that commercial use is permitted, then the restrictions on redistributing free fonts and derivative works relates to the font itself, not to works created using that font (such as logos, posters, etc.). If that were not the case, one wold need permission from Foundry every time you sought to distribute any work created using that font.

    To be safe, you can email Foundry and ask for clarification. I’m sure they’ll be pleased to know one of their fonts is used in a logo that will become part of a collection reflecting modern logo design.

    incidentally, I don’t see in the language you quoted permission to use for commercial purposes. You mention that you can, but unless I’m missing it, I don’t see it in the portions oft the license you quoted.

  • Mina

    Oh, thank you for the quick reply! 🙂

    Well I wanted to put the whole licence here in the first place but I couldn’t
    find a way of uploading a pdf or jpg files,nor leaving a link. :-/

    Anyway,it is an EULA free font licence agreement that is applicable to all the free fonts created by Fontfabric.

    Like you already said, it wouldn’t make any sense to consider logos,posters etc derivative works,because in that case the fonts wouldn’t be free -AT ALL. However,all this license thing really is so complicated, and to make things worse is different from country to country….it seems that a designer should be a lawyer too in order to “know the ropes”. 🙁

    As for modifications, I believe it is only those done in FontLab and similar programmes used for creating fonts,that really do count.

    Well,maybe I should ask them, but I’m not sure they will answer at all, since they already mentioned it in their licence statement. :-/

    Thanks again. 🙂

  • Dustin

    Thank you.

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