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.
Letterhead Fonts is a nice source of information as well as a supplier of awesomely sign-friendly fonts, many designed by real hand letterers. Choosing letter styles for sign work requires special considerations that are not always necessary in other media.
The following link is to a tutorial about how good design principles should be applied to even small, unimportant copy. It’s brief, but well done.
This blog entry begins a new category on this blog site that will gradually be added to, though it will be by no means exhaustive.
The sign world has long had a collection of trade terms that are not well known outside the industry. And I have even met sign makers, some having been in business for years, who are not familiar with terms that were once commonplace among sign artists (for example, pouncepattern). And, as the sign business continues to move away from hand lettering and to blend with the printing trade and its related field of typography, terminology is often misunderstood by sign makers not familiar with print jargon. The terms logo and font are two examples of terms commonly misunderstood, or used imprecisely, both inside and outside the sign industry.
At the same time, language is not static. It is a living, breathing animal that is constantly changing. Definitions will continue to evolve.
FONT [n.] Brit. FOUNT a complete assortment of type of one style and size.
Origin: probably from Middle French fonte, the act of founding or casting, from Vulgar Latin fundita, fem. of funditas, a verbal noun, the past participle of Latin fundere, to found, pour or cast.
A font, or collection of type, was originally made of metal by the process of casting, or founding. The metal was commonly an alloy of lead, tin and antimony. Fonts were stored in print shops in compartmentalized drawers or cases. Type compositors stood in front of the font assortments, selecting type from either the ‘upper case’ (capital letters) or the ‘lower case’ (noncapital letters). Though printing is still accomplished using metal type, the vast majority of printing is now composed with digital type. Fonts are now pieces of software, programs really, that are loaded onto computers to drive printers and other output devices to produce lettering in a particular typeface. An analogy to music can help explain the difference between a typeface and a font: If a typeface is like a song, a font is like an mp3 file. The song is what you hear, but the file is what produces it. Similarly, a typestyle is what you see, while a font is the digital tool that produces it. In practice, the word font is often used without much precision, sometimes interchangeably with the word typeface. As the digital age continues, and the original meaning of the word font fades, the distinction between typeface and font may disappear altogether.—see related post, Sign painters didn’t use fonts
In the US, a font (the software) is protected by copyright, whereas a typestyle (the design) is not. Both the US Congress and the US Copyright Office have made it clear that the design of letters cannot be protected. However, the name of a font may receive trademark protection. —see related post, Is a typestyle protected by copyright?
No, it isn’t. At least, not in the United States. On the other hand, a font IS protected by copyright.
Does this seem confusing? If so, it’s because so many people use the term “font” to refer to a “typestyle” or “typeface.” The two terms are really not interchangeable.
A typeface, or typestyle, is a set of letters, including numbers, punctuation and assorted glyphs, that all share similar design characteristics. They may have similar shapes, strokes, serifs and other details. In printed form, they all look to be part of the same family due to their design. In the United States, a letterstyle does not qualify for copyright registration.
So what is a font? Though many people use the word ‘font’ as a synonym for letterstyle, it is really what is used to produce letters in a form that can be viewed. A font is apiece of software, a program really, that allows a computer to command a printer (or router, or laser engraver, or embroidery machine) to produce the letters in physical form. Originally, a font was a set of metal type pieces in a particular size and typestyle for loading onto a printing press. To create a complete font of type was labor-intensive and expensive. Nowadays, a font is generally composed of unique digital code. This code is protected by copyright, and it cannot be copied without permission from the copyright owner.
Additionally, font names can be protected by trademark law, just like brand names. This is why you can buy a font (actually, a license to use the font) for your computer for printing letters that look exactly like Helvetica, but they are called something else. Someone owns the Helvetica font, the name and the underlying software, and that’s not the license you bought. You bought a license to use a differently programmed piece of software with a different name. But what you print looks just like Helvetica letters, because the Helvetica font owners don’t own what the letters look like, the design.
Of course, this is US law. The laws on fonts and typestyles may and does vary in other countries.