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I am about to finish designing logo. I use two fonts. One I already bought, but the other... I need just one letter from this font but it is not free.

Do I need to buy the entire font?

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If you have the font on your machine to make the letter but didn't pay for it, then installing the font was your infringement. But there is no copyright protection on the shape of letters:

Under U.S. law, typefaces and the letter forms or glyphs they comprise are considered to be utilitarian objects whose utility outweighs any merit that may exist in protecting their creative elements. Typefaces are exempt from copyright protection in the United States (Code of Federal Regulations, Ch 37, Sec. 202.1(e); Eltra Corp. vs. Ringer).

From Wikipedia, "Intellectual property protection of typefaces"

You can read the article for the full details. Font files are considered to be effectively computer programs, and protected by copyright. But if you convert the glyph to vector--and avoid embedding of the OpenType/TrueType font file in any file format you distribute--you would almost certainly be fine.

Perhaps a bit paranoid: but if you consider cases like Adobe vs. Southern Systems (via @DA01), it may be possible the vector fundamentals of the drawing program you were using are directly mapping font control points in Convert to Vector. But a single letter in a drawing that can be forensically shown to consist of the same "control point DNA" is a far cry from the details of that case, where they created thousands of commercially competitive derived font files from Adobe fonts! Still if you were worried about this nuance, you could convert the letter to bitmap at a large size, then convert to vector.

A greater issue to consider may be whether going in with your direct selection and path editing tools could let you tweak the design of this letter to be better. Is it missing alignment points on your grid by a hair here or there? Is the thickness exactly right, or is it off and you're afraid to edit it? For typographic marks it's okay to start with letters that are "close" but at some point you want to convert to vector and edit it for what best serves the design.

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    Converting the Glyph to vector still retains all the mechanical and mathematical constructs of the font file itself--meaning you really haven't changes the copyrighted software that describes the glyph. Of course, the odds of anyone every getting persecuted for that are slim to none, but just a heads up. Ironically, though, auto-tracing the same glyph to make your own new mathematical description of it is completely legal--at least in the US. (whether or not that's professionally ethical is another debate) – DA01 Apr 22 '14 at 3:17
  • @DA01 Nope,one does not retain all of the mechanical and mathematical constructs. The "hinting" and parts that represent a program vs. the shapes themselves are lost. In programs that delegate to the OS to draw type that hasn't been vectorized, you may well notice a significant difference from what the OS drew...based on the quality of the conversion method or library used to cast the Text-to-Bitmap features of the OS into the native bezier/b-spline/whatever components the drawing engine is built on. – HostileFork says dont trust SE Apr 22 '14 at 3:30
  • definitely not 'all' but likely enough matching metrics to infringe. For example, I can open a font, remove all hinting and other such elements, resave the font, and I'd still be infringing as I kept the same "control points". See this case: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/…. It should be noted that that case is the exception rather than the rule, so it's unlikely it'd be an issue, but technically/legally it still could be. – DA01 Apr 22 '14 at 4:12
  • (As an aside, hinting is method for screen rendering of the underlying vector font information. So regardless of the amount of hinting information in the typeface, the actual typeface metrics are vectors.) – DA01 Apr 22 '14 at 4:13
  • @DA01 Interesting case (here's a working link) but I imagine the argument for it being a problem has to do with the mechanical production of one font program from another using trivial differences, and doing it on the scale of thousands of fonts certainly didn't help. Applicability to this--which isn't making a font from a font, then marketed as competition to the original product--would seem to be limited. Also convert to vector does not necessarily use the same curves or control points, as above (this varies). – HostileFork says dont trust SE Apr 22 '14 at 23:03
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Most typefaces are sold as an entire set, so yes, you'd need to purchase the entire typeface.

In the grand scheme of things, a typeface shouldn't be a make it or break it part of the budget. It's just yet another tool that you'd be using to produce the final product.

All that said, there are alternatives. For instance, House Industries' PhotoLettering service is designed to let you buy 'per letter' as needed: http://www.photolettering.com/

WARNING: SOAPBOXING AHEAD!

It's best to treat typefaces as really important tools. It's like a carpenter that invests in a quality Japanese saw vs. the $12 one from Home Depot. Both can 'cut' but one is going to make things so much easier for the craftsperson and the investment in the Japanese saw is going to pay off dividends down the road in terms of better quality output--not to mention saved time and sweat.

So when debating whether or not one can afford a typeface, one should really ask themselves if they can afford NOT to pay for the typeface.

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If you are designing the logo to be used publicly, as part of corporate identity, on stationery, signage, the website... yes.

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  • But if I change this letter a little bit? Does it make difference? – dizzy1 Apr 21 '14 at 19:57
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    @dizzy1 Depends on how identifiable the letter is. If it is really unique you'll need to change it enough where it is no longer considered or recognized as the original font. To my knowledge, there is no rule against using a font as "inspiration" so if you are creating your own vector and are not tracing the font, you should be fine. – John Apr 21 '14 at 20:50
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    @dizzy1 if you 'change' the letter that's in the font, it (technically/legally) doesn't matter how much you change it. You started with that letter, so therefore it's derivative work. Realistically, if you change it to the point that it's not recognizable, no one will likely recognize it. But if you're going to go that far, why start with a font to begin with? If you draw your own letter you'd be in the clear. And I'd strongly suggest doing just that for a number of reasons...namely that you are going to make that logo that much more bespoke by doing your own lettering for it. – DA01 Apr 21 '14 at 23:23

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