I will preface this by saying that I am not a lawyer. I am pretty familiar with font legal/business issues from my decade-plus at Adobe working with their lead font lawyer, and 20 years in the type business in various roles dealing with IP.
But that said, these are legal issues, and consulting a lawyer is an excellent idea. One such lawyer who is well known to work on font-related issues, and does not work exclusively for a single vendor is Frank Martinez (Martinez Group PLLC) in New York City / Brooklyn.
With typography I’m discovering that even if I want to release a font for free, I still need to do so under the appropriate framework such as the SIL Open Font License, or a CC0 Creative Commons license, etc.
Yes, because there are many different versions of “free” with different rules about what people can do with the font. Your “free” might want to make sure that derivative works maintain the same freedoms for their recipients, or might want to make sure that they retain freedoms for the people making modifications. Those two objectives can conflict.
Otherwise, if I'm not careful, it sounds like anyone could just copyright my work as their own
No, copyright is exclusive to the author, or to whomever they assign it to.
and even charge for it
Well, that is true, unless the license you choose restricts such things. But be careful—even if you do not want someone to be able to charge for your font as is, would you want to stop them from charging for, say, a Cyrillic version they created based on yours? What happens with modifications is the most interesting and tricky part of “free fonts.”
And then there is the question of what to do with about commercial fonts. I understand that as "typefaces", the designs cannot be patented or registered as trademarks, but as font-software they can.
The font-vs-typeface distinction is relevant to US copyright, not so much to patent or trademark. Typefaces per se can definitely be subject to design patent (a unique US form of design protection), and in fact the very first US design patent was for a typeface. This form of protection has been rarely used for fonts in the digital era, other than by Adobe, because of the expense and limited duration of protection—currently 15 years for new design patents, formerly 14 years.
Although design patent is a uniquely American thing, numerous other countries have some form of design protection.
Typefaces/fonts can also be subject to trademarks, and this is a widely used form of protection. Trademarks can last forever as long as they are maintained.
- What, if anything, does it cost to register a font as my design? If the answer depends on whether it is sold, licensed, or distributed for free, please explain.
The costs of US design patent are moderate, but enough that they may not make sense for most fonts: $380 for the filing ($190 for a “micro-entity” which presumably includes a private individual. If you are working through a lawyer, you might estimate $1500.
However, you might also need to file in other jurisdictions at additional costs, if you wanted something more extensive.
You should also file a US copyright. Technically, you have copyright whether you file or not, but the fact that registration of that copyright entitles you to 3x damages, plus statutory damages for the simple act of infringement, is generally a strong reason to file the copyright.
US copyright is commonly filed for commercial fonts, and is handled like software. You could use a tool such as ttx/fonttools to dump the font to a readable XML file, and then print the first and last 25 pages, and file those, using the same [procedure described here] (http://copyright.gov/circs/circ61.pdf).
- How and where do I go to do that?
Copyright is filed with the [US copyright office] (http://www.copyright.gov/), may reasonably be done without a lawyer, and only costs $35–55 USD, depending on the details.
Design patent, like trademark, is filed with the US Patent & Trademark Office. Sadly, I have not enough “reputation” on this site to give you more links, but it is easily found.
- As far as fonts go, what are the differences between patents, trademarks, and other such terms? Please list pros and cons of commercial options separately from open-source options.
Design patent (not what most people think of as a patent, which is a utility patent) protects the abstract design of the typeface, regardless of how it is instantiated. Industrial design rights and the like in other countries do something similar.
Trademark protects the name, when applied in the limited domain specified in the trademark application. This is presumably why, for example, the Hyundai Excel car did not infringe on the Microsoft Excel software trademark. However, as fonts may be considered software, beware of pre-existing trademarks that cover software that might interfere with your use of a font name.
In the USA, copyright is understood to apply to the computer code that instantiates the typeface as one or more fonts. Although the font industry acts as if this is settled law, it has not been fully tested at the highest level in US courts, so it is possible that such treatment could be invalidated by a future court decision. Still, for the past 20 years, font creators’ and vendors’ decisions about legal actions have been clearly predicated on this belief, so it is reasonable to act as if it is true.
- The SIL Open Font License refers to something called Registered Font Names....
Wrzlprmft gives a fine answer to this.
- Does each font weight and style have to be registered separately, or is the process for font-families the same as for single styles?
In general, people trademark the typeface family name, not each style name. So one trademark.
Every font is separate, so for copyright of fonts, each font (weight/style) is a separate entity. Separate copyrights.
For design patent, it is not so obvious, the Patent and Trademark Office has accepted multiple styles of a single typeface in a single application (for example, in the design patent on my Hypatia Sans), so that seems the way to go.
- Are there any automated, one-stop websites where one can go through the processes described here? Please provide references.
Not that I am aware of.