(This is probably more a "copyright" question than anything, but I have not found an appropriate StackExchange site for this kind of question.)

Why are fonts like Akzidenz-Grotesk, that were made way back in 19th century (Akzidenz-Grotesk was made in 1896), still copyrighted and not in the public domain?

  • Specific to the example of Akzidenz-Grotesk, one reason is that the foundry that owns the name, Berthold, has a long history of litigious behavior
    – DA01
    Commented May 7, 2015 at 15:27

4 Answers 4


It's got to do with the legal distinction between a font and a typeface. Fonts being the digital implementation of an original typeface design.

The Akzidenz-Grotesk typeface may be over a hundred years old and out of copyright, but the font that happens to share its name and is obviously based on it, is a new and distinct legal object, subject to its own copyright period.

You're (probably) within your legal rights to create a brand new font that also happens to be slavishly based on the original typeface, as long as you create it from scratch and don't use the name 'Akzidenz-Grotesk' (hence, fonts like MS's Book Antiqua being a blatant ripoff of Palatino and other similar cases).

There are many versions of Times, Garamond, Caslon and other typefaces sold by different foundries. Each implementation is copyright to the publishing foundry, even though the name is the same. The design is in the public domain; the implementation is not.

  • 2
    In that case, I have one more question. If anyone can make a font based on this typeface, why can't anyone use the name? You are saying that the first entity, that ever makes a font based on the typeface, has the right to use the name for the copyright period? Commented Mar 2, 2012 at 15:01
  • @Karel probably for the same reason that you would get sued out of existence if you renamed your business "Disneyland". :)
    – Farray
    Commented Mar 2, 2012 at 15:22
  • 1
    It's down to the same issue. Akzidenz-Grotesk the font is in a different category as Akzidenz-Grotesk the typeface; Each one of those entities is a package of many intellectual properties including the name and design. It gets a bit murky because in this case, one is a (identical) re-implementation of the other, and because fonts and typefaces are so closely linked categories in our mind. Perhaps it's easier to illustrate the difference using a different example: If I made a font out of my handwriting, I'm free to call it "Robin Hood" (public domain), but not "Donald Duck" (copyrighted).
    – Heroes182
    Commented Mar 2, 2012 at 15:36
  • Exactly like Farray said. If Berthold had called their font version of the Akzidenz-Grotesk typeface, say, Grotesque Accident, then Akzidenz-Grotesk as a font name would still be up for grabs.
    – Heroes182
    Commented Mar 2, 2012 at 15:39
  • 3
    The reason you can't call your font Donald Duck is due to trade mark/passing off law rather than copyright. I would suspect that you could call your font Donald Duck if there was no prospect of confusion with the Disney character. But you would have to check if Disney or anyone else had registered the Trade Mark with a category that covered fonts first. Commented Mar 2, 2012 at 16:11

Further to the answer by Heroes182, noting the distinction between a typeface and a font, it should be noted that typefaces are unprotected by copyright in the US (but are protected in the UK) which is why their glyphs can be copied into a new font. Either way, the shapes are up for grabs.

An electronic font file, on the other hand, is interpreted as a computer program by US copyright law, so is protected against copying. This means that you have to use a non-digital method to reproduce the font if you want to make your own version.

Finally, a company selling a particular font under a particular name (like Palatino) gives rise to a trademark on the name. It's that protection that stops other fonts being called the same name (cf. Microsoft's Book Antiqua).

See the NRSI article Font Licensing and Protection Details for more information.

  • I added emphasis to copyright and trademark in your answer, as you raise a very important and often overlooked distinction. There are (in the US, at least) 4 types of intellectual property, each with their own expiration dates and penalties, etc: copyright, trademark, patent, and trade secret. Copyrights are meant to protect artists from misappropriation, trademark protects a company brand. While I think trademark law is out of hand, I do respect the original intent, preventing me from selling rat poison with a Coca-Cola label on the front.
    – Anthony
    Commented Mar 21, 2012 at 2:24

Some additional remarks:

  • Works that have been created in the 19th century can still be realistically copyrightable, because the relevant date in many copyright laws, in particular the German one, is the death of the creator. As of now, a work enters the public domain after 70 full calendar years have passed since the creator’s death. So if the creator died later in 1945 or later, their work may not yet have entered the public domain. And living 46 years after having created a font is not that unlikely.

  • The analogue Akzidenz-Grotesk has a convoluted and not fully known¹ history and been modified many times between ca. 1880 and 1985. Thus, while the early versions and styles probably are in the public domain, the younger ones aren’t. Most of the work since 1950 has been done by Günter Gerhard Lange, who died in 2008, rendering his work copyrightable up to 2078 (if the copyright laws are not changed until then).

¹ See, e.g., this source in German.


In the US, design patents are issued for a maximum of 14 years. Thereafter, the designs are public domain. Other countries have similar laws and negotiate international agreements.

In the US and elsewhere, trademarks may be renewed indefinitely, and revival developers have been sued for infringement of typeface names.

The Library of Congress has never issued copyrights for type designs per se. Even so, digital fonts are automatically protected because when printed, the code pattern forms an original creative work.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.