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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  • Jennifer Harshman

    But you can trademark it as it applies to your brand or product. Owens-Corning (the company that makes pink fiberglass insulation) went to court saying the pink color was their trademark, and won.

  • L

    I am considering selling wooden signs that I have painted myself. I design them in Photoshop using different fonts (either personal use only or commercial use). Then I print off the outline and either trace the words onto the sign, then paint. Or create my own stencil using an xacto knife. Would these instances fall under the “creating your one font” category? Would that apply to both commercial and personal use fonts or only commercial?

  • Yuki Oyama

    I may sound extremely ignorant right now, but I’m using a font called Alba and I am planning to sell logos to others. This font is generated as a scalable graphic in Adobe Illustrator. I am using a letter for the logo, and I actually converted it from a text into an image by creating outlines on the font. I then modified that image by adding designs to it, and thus creating my final product. Is this illegal? I am also unsure as to where to find the licencse for Alba. Thanks.

  • Ross Kimbarovsky

    I’m not sure I understand your question. Perhaps you can clarify?

  • Ross Kimbarovsky

    If you take another look at the post, you’ll see that outlining helps you avoid copyright issues. So, it appears you’re already doing that. As for finding the license for Alba … search for “alba font license” on Google or Bing and you’ll see results that will help you. Sometimes, Alba is licensed for personal use (for free). But in your case, if you’re looking to license the font and if your clients need to be able to buy the font, you should identify a commercial license.

  • Jan

    I was wondering if there was any rules about reproducing a small subset of characters in a font? For instance, I know you can copy a certain amount of a book and distribute it for educational purposes (at least in Canada) – are there similar laws that pertain to fonts? Specifically, if I export 3 characters from a protected font and use it for my logo on my site, am I breaking the law?


  • Saidi

    Thanks for this important article

    I created a special font for an old language. A Ph. D. student asked me to give him a copy just to use it in his dissertation. I asked him not to give it to any else or to use it elsewhere. Then, he used it in publishing a book and he himself made it ‘ free download’ in a public website without my permission. I am living in Germany and he is living in UK. Have I the right to sue him and get my rights?

    Thanks a lot

    Prof. Saidi

  • Saidi

    Thanks for this important article

    I created a special font for an old language. A Ph. D. student asked me to give him a copy just to use it in his dissertation. I asked him not to give it to any else or to use it elsewhere. Then, he used it in publishing a book and he himself made it ‘ free download’ in a public website without my permission. I am living in Germany and he is living in UK. Have I the right to sue him and get my rights?

    Thanks a lot

    Prof. Saidi

  • Ian Fischer

    I’d consult an attorney for that.

  • Ian Fischer

    This is my opinion not legal advice. Please consult a competent and licensed attorney for legal advice. This is for informational purposes only.

    I would be wary of outlining fonts because you are essentially making a derivative work of the font, which runs a fowl of the copyright law in the US. ask permission instead of asking for forgiveness. in general and in my opinion, licensing is way cheaper than getting sued.

  • Ian Fischer

    link to blog?

  • Ian Fischer

    You need a lawyer.

  • JoeD

    Untrue. As mentioned in the article the font is the piece of computer code written to produce the typeface, not the typeface itself. You are no more making a derivative work of the font than you would be making a derivative work of a video game by taking a picture of your screen.

  • jimdigritz

    A quick question, I’m led to believe that using a commercial font as a wordmark (ie the Facebook logo) is in violation of most commercial font EULAs — even if it’s outlined. This is different if the logo merely ‘contains’ the font, but has another unique distinguishing feature/mark.

    Is this right?

  • Ross Kimbarovsky

    A UELA and copyright law can have different provisions (you can, for example, agree to give up more rights under contract than those you would be giving up under a particular law). It’s impossible to answer your question in the abstract because the answer would depend on the specific terms of the license for the font. Luckily, there are so many fonts that if you find a license that’s overly restrictive, you can usually find something close that provides more flexibility.

  • Karen

    Is there a way to find out who has published a font? I am marketing assistant and handle the graphic needs of our company. I use Adobe Creative Suite I know in the past we needed one specific font and an entire package of fonts (apx 100) was purchased very inexpensively and installed on my computer. This would have been about 8 years ago and nobody here has recolletion of the the site used to purchase or what exact fonts were in that package. Recently my boss asked me to create a logo to be used on an internal project. I selected a font available on my computer, chose a color scheme and added some brushstrokes. Now the projec thas taken off and we are looking to trademark the logo I have created. Our trademark attorney is asking me to provide not only the name of the font but the name of the publisher and any website information.

  • Patrick

    I used a font and altered the design of the letterforms to create a 9 letter word logo. This became a vector file. Now my client wants a whole working alphabet to match these letterforms. My questions are: 1. They want to be able to set body text using this customized typeface, which I will need to do in fontographer, so am I, or are they obligated by copyright to pay the original owner of the font a fee? 2. I am starting from the original font owner’s letterform, am I using their work and profiting?

  • Ross Kimbarovsky

    Generally, a font is accompanied by license terms (or it could be in the public domain). Some fonts allow only personal use while others allow commercial use. Some require payment while others don’t It’s not possible to answer either question unless you review the licensing terms of the font you used initially. And of course it depends on where you use the font/typeface and which country’s copyright laws apply.

  • If you provide a web design tool that allows users to upload their own fonts, are you liable for the fonts they upload for one time use?

  • Pingback: Designer Guide to Fonts for Web Design()

  • Dannysmartful

    What if a typeface has not been brought into the computerized world? I found a vintage ad from the 50’s and I really like the font. However, I have no idea what it’s called. I have not been able to find it on the internet, and I have no idea who I would contact about possibly getting permission.

  • Ross Kimbarovsky

    You have a few options. If you have access to the entire font library in hard copy, you can find a way to transfer it to a computer (if clean, perhaps you can scan). However, since you have an ad and not the full typeface and are not sure what the typeface is, it sounds like that’s not an option.

    There are a number of online services that will help you identify a font (although those are designed more for modern fonts). You can take a look at a few of those and perhaps look for a font that closely matches the one you like.

    And, of course, there are designers available for hire who could take the ad and create a custom typeface for you. And of course, there are services that will let you create your own typeface if you have some design skills.

    Good luck!

  • Cody

    Ok, I don’t know if it was in there, and I just got lost in the information. But say I use a font that is available in photoshop. If I alter it, say, stretch height, or width, (as long as it doesn’t hold it’s original shape and spacing) , or texture it, or manipulate it some manner of a shape. Is that considered fair game and legal to use without issues?

  • Roy

    Hi there,

    I made a logo using typeface from Microsoft word. This logo was engraved on a product we are about to sell. Do we need to buy a license for this?

  • Juliette

    Great article! What type of licence is required to use an outline-style font that spells out a quote within a coloring book? TIA

  • atace

    Can I use a standard font (say Helvetica for example) to design a logo, and use that logo to sell my own products without getting into any legal problems (intellectual property infringement of any kind)?

  • Norbert Trebron

    Hi. How does font licensing work for collaborative sites like Wikipedia? I’m interested in two cases:

    a) just like wikipedia, ie non-profit that runs on donations, and

    b) just like wikipedia, but either “freemium” or otherwise fee-based.

    How much would it cost to use, say, Futura, as the font for the headlines of such a site? Note the content is added by millions of users.

    Thank you.

  • i know it varies but what bugs me is when foundries want a designer to purchase their own license when they are buying it for a client because they need the file to create the work, not because they plan on keeping it or using it.

  • Steven Verstoep

    How about this case: I generate 3D objects of all characters in a FONT (using Blender Software) (possibly distorting the font (thickness)). I then write software that makes 3D words from text, so I have to do my own typesetting. This can then be used to render 3D text in other software, designing or games. I made already 1 set based on Arial, but am I allowed to sell this asset based on different popular fonts (and use the names of these fonts)? And 2: same question if you rasterize it into textures (bitmaps).

  • Iranardo da Silva

    It’s veeeeery disencouraging. I am a Brazilian who loves Gothic or also named Blackletter fonts so much but every time I go to sites that offers free fonts I find most of them incomplete with no all the glyphs… What should I do because I do not want to send money here and there but I’d like to avoid legal problems.

  • Mark

    Is it also illegal to download commercial fonts free from a site just for personal use? I mean, it’s often all about commercial use…for magazines, newspapers, advertisement. Anything what goes public. I know this might be a tricky question.

  • Ross Kimbarovsky

    Each site/font will publish license terms. Sometimes, fonts developed for commercial use permit personal use. Other times, you may not use commercial fonts for any purpose without paying for them. Read the license carefully.

  • Ross Kimbarovsky

    You should consider investing in the fonts. Free fonts can sometimes come close but as you point out, are often incomplete and this can be very frustrating when you’re in the middle of a project. Keep in mind that someone took the time to design the fonts. Although they’re not directly benefitting from the license you buy, it nonetheless indirectly encourages more people to design.

  • Mark

    I found a site that offers the font Klavika free for download. Klavika (used in Eurosport and in Mission Impossible-Ghost protocol) is a commercial font which should be purchased. In the past I found sites where it can only be bought. The particular site I’m talking about doesn’t publish license terms. It’s a site where various fonts can be downloaded for free, with no conditions or restrictions.

  • JJ Schifsky

    I work in a small, independent gift shop that wants to create customized monograms for our products. We would like the traditional look of the Monogram KK or Interlocking Vine font. I cannot find either for commerical use. What am I doing wrong?

  • Ross Kimbarovsky

    If you’re having trouble finding a license that permits commercial use, consider asking a font designer to create a unique font/monogram for you.

  • Ross Kimbarovsky

    Font licenses commonly specify how you can use the font. Often, personal use is allowed but commercial use is allowed only if you buy the font. But each font/license differs so this is impossible to answer generally. Keep in mind too that free font sites often ignore licenses and font laws – be careful there.

  • Sinjin

    Hi there. I created a logo using Bauhaus for a friends project. It now looks like the project might become a business and they wish to continue using the logo. How could we now protect ourselves legally?

  • Ross Kimbarovsky

    Have your friend purchase a license to use the Bauhaus font (or perhaps you can purchase a license that gives you the right to create commercial works with that font).

  • Sinjin

    Hi there, thanks. I used a free download initially. Would both or one of us owning the font be enough protection?

  • Ross Kimbarovsky

    Yes, that should be fine. The terms of the license will help you understand your rights. For example, most licenses will allow you to use a font for commercial purposes and as long as the client is simply using a logo you created with a licensed font that permits use in commercial projects, the client would not need to separately own a license to that font (assuming the license permitted such use). There are tons of free fonts (many are actually free and don’t require any payment for commercial use). Since you and your friend want to be extra careful, spending a little money to buy the commercial font would give you peace of mind.

  • Tom

    Is there a list of fonts that are free of restrictions that can be used in any situation?
    Also, I am a student currently doing some projects for very limited use, such a s posters for a school play. I am not selling any work. How can I find fonts that can be used in circumstances where I am not selling my work but the client is using it to sell their product (ie, selling theater tickets)?

  • Ross Kimbarovsky

    Do a search for “free commercial use fonts” on Google or your favorite search engine and take a look. Lots of options are available (not all are great, but you can often find some reasonably good fonts).

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