How can two typestyles appear identical without constituting copyright infringement?

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In the United States, a typeface, that is, the design of a letter style, the way the letters appear, is not protected by copyright. Hence, a letter style may be designed to look like an exact duplicate of another without infringement. However, a font, that is, the unique underlying software code that allows you to print a particular typeface, is protected. This has long been the position taken by both the US Congress and the US Copyright Office.

The group Georgia Lawyers for the Arts in an online article posted February 10, 2014, explains it this way:

“A typeface is a set of letters, numbers, and punctuation marks whose forms are related by repeating certain design elements that are consistently applied. Put more simply, typeface refers to the way a set of letters or numbers appears… A font, on the other hand, is the computer program that tells the printer or computer display how a letter or character is supposed to be shown. In the United States, fonts are protectable under copyright law. Typefaces, however, are not.”

Similar typefaces may be similar in appearance. Two typefaces may even appear identical. But if they are each based on their own unique digital code, there is no copyright infringement in the US. A copyright infringement occurs when someone, without permission of the original author, copies a font file, which is actually a small software program. A font file is protected as an original work.

Interestingly, the name of a typestyle may be protected as a trademark.

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Is it always an infringement to use someone else’s trademark?

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No. Because ownership of a trademark is not absolute. Just as the fair use defense exists in US copyright law, there are times when the use of a trademark without permission from the owner does not constitute infringement.

The purpose of a trademark is to identify the source of goods or services. It is to prevent consumer confusion in the marketplace. However, as noted by New York attorney Brian Farkas at the website, NOLO, “the use of a trademark does not necessarily qualify as an infringement if the user is not using the trademark as a mark.” (italics added)

When You Don’t Need Permission to Use Another Owner’s Trademarks

He states that “if you use the mark for informational or editorial purposes to identify specific products and services, or if your use is part of an accurate comparative product statement,” it could be fair use. He also gives some good examples of such fair use.

Further, use of a trademark in parody can be considered fair use. A photographer’s use of the Barbie mark was acknowledged as fair use by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals (2003).

Mattel Inc., a Delaware Corporation v. Walking Mountain Productions, a California Business Entity…, 353 F.3d 792 – CourtListener.com