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Appendix C Font legalities

This section owes a great deal to Charles Bigelow (co-designer with Kris Holmes of the Lucida typeface family, among others), who has generously answered our many queries about fonts and the law around the world with remarkable patience and understanding. (But he is naturally not responsible for any errors here, much less our opinions.)

Fonts have always been treated rather strangely under the law, as befits their rather strange nature: letterforms are indivisibly both useful and artistic. In most countries—in all countries until recently—utility has taken precedence; i.e., it has been legal to copy fonts without permission or fee.

In any case, to the best of my knowledge, the situation in those countries which have adopted any sort of typeface protection is as follows. This was originally written in the early 1990's; these days, the situation is probably different, due to widespread adoption of software patents, among other things, but I lack specific information to include.

United States
Typeface designs can be patented, but not copyrighted. Only a few designs have been patented. (Lucida and Stone are the only ones I know of. I don't know what the grounds were for patenting Stone, but Lucida had some novel features in its design which make it reasonable to patent, given the acceptance of the patent system in the first place.)

Particular programs which instantiate a font can be copyrighted just as any other computer program can. This is arguably wrong, since font programs are nothing but a description of the shapes, possibly with some simple hints, and there's only one basic way to describe the shapes in any given language. Thus, the creativity lies in making the shape right, not in making the computer program right, so it would seem that to be consistent, the copyright laws should protect the design, not the program—the opposite of the current situation.

Typeface designs have been copyrightable as original works of art since 1981. As a result, many (perhaps most) designs have been copyrighted there. The law is not retroactive, but German courts have upheld the intellectual property rights of designers of earlier fonts as well: In one case the heirs of Paul Renner (designer of Futura) won a suit against the Bauer foundry for arbitrarily discontinuing a portion of their royalties.

A copyright law passed in 1989 covers typeface designs first published in England (or published in Britain within 30 days of its publication elsewhere), and it is retroactive. It's unclear how far back the law extends, but Times Roman, designed in the late 1920's and 1930's by Stanley Morison is probably covered. This does not mean GNU (for example) cannot have a Times Roman; it just means we cannot start with an English version, as the law does not forbid importing foreign versions of English typefaces.

The Romain du Roi typeface designed by Philippe Grandjean in 1702 for the French royal family is protected, and perhaps other such “royal” designs. There is no protection for designs in general.

In 1973 the international Vienna treaty on typeface design protection was proposed. France ratified it in 1974 or 1975, and Germany in 1981. The English law might constitute ratification, but this has not been settled. In any case, since at least four countries have to ratify it before it takes effect (and even then it takes effect only in those countries which ratify it), it is still of no consequence for now.