1

In the last few years I've shifted the focus of my design career from marketing and advertising to typography: everything from custom lettering and logotypes for in branding to entire font families for public use.

Over the fifteen years I’ve spent as a designer, I’ve rarely had to deal directly with legal frameworks. I had a basic contract for client work to protect me as a freelancer and access to lawyers for my time as an in-house designer.

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. Otherwise, if I'm not careful, it sounds like anyone could just copyright my work as their own and even charge for it

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.

So here are my questions:

  1. 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.
  2. How and where do I go to do that?
  3. 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.
  4. The SIL Open Font License refers to something called Registered Font Names (or RFNs): is this the act of registering a word or phrase for the express purpose of reserving it for a font, as opposed to registering a business name for example? If not, what IS the correct way to register the name of a font, or is it part of registering the design?
  5. Does each font weight and style have to be registered separately, or is the process for font-families the same as for single styles?
  6. Are there any automated, one-stop websites where one can go through the processes described here? Please provide references.
  • Maybe you should approach a type foundry or another type designer and ask them some of these questions? They might be able to help you. Have you checked the SIL website scripts.sil.org/cms/scripts/… – Luciano Jan 19 '16 at 10:24
  • a lot of the answers to these questions depend on which country you are in and which country/countries you want to register/protect your font in, as laws and procedures vary widely. – spiral Jan 19 '16 at 13:20
  • @Luciano, yes I checked there that’s how I came across the reference and that is where the RFN link leads. – Moscarda Jan 19 '16 at 13:39
  • @spiral, I was worried about that, however sites like MyFonts sell hundreds of thousands of fonts from all over the world, and from what I know as a customer is that their MyFonts license takes precedent over the foundry. – Moscarda Jan 19 '16 at 13:43
  • @Moscarda foundries selling through MyFonts can choose to use their own licence or MyFont's standard licence. But the licence only outlines what the end user can or cannot do with the purchased font, that is different from having copyright on a font or a font name. – spiral Jan 20 '16 at 9:03
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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.

  1. 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).

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. The SIL Open Font License refers to something called Registered Font Names....

Wrzlprmft gives a fine answer to this.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  • you mentioned a 35$ fee for a US copyright and a minimum fee of 190$ for a design patent ( I imagine that as an individual/one-man foundry, I would qualify as a "micro-entity" ) ... I'm quite poor at the moment so 35$ sounds much better: is there any reason why a design patent is better than a copyright for fonts? And then you said "in general people trademark the typeface family name"; In FontLab Studio there are parameters for copyright and trademark. Also can one register a name before the font is complete so that another typographer can't come along and register first? – Moscarda Jan 20 '16 at 17:52
  • @Moscarda So, you have copyright by the act of authorship. Registering that copyright is what costs you money. But it is a minimal fee as you say. – Thomas Phinney Jan 21 '16 at 20:38
  • @Moscarda A copyright protects the digital font software, your implementation. A design patent protects the abstract design. So the design patent is much broader and more powerful, but it is also more expensive and of shorter duration. The field in FontLab Studio for trademark is simply a place for you to note the existence of the trademark. You can claim a trademark without registration (TM vs R)... & note US trademark registration is $200+, and is best done with legal help costing much more. uspto.gov/trademarks-application-process/filing-online – Thomas Phinney Jan 21 '16 at 20:45
  • The field in FontLab Studio for trademark is simply a place for you to note the existence of the trademark. You can claim a trademark without registration (TM vs R). Yeah I figured as much. Plus I learned in my research that the trademark only applies to the name. So if one were to trademark but not copyright, anyone could legally clone the font if they changed the name. Both together sound best. What I don't get—and this is more a philosophical question—is where is the line between a font showing influence of another as an homage and copyright infringement? – Moscarda Jan 24 '16 at 17:37
  • BTW I am also new to the site... I gave your answer my vote and clicked the diamond below, which I believe marks the question ask "officially" answered, but I can't tell. Did I do it correctly? And can I upvote other answers that were helpful (even if they were only partial answers) without detracting from the vote I gave you, and marking my question answered? – Moscarda Jan 24 '16 at 17:40
3

This is only a partial answer. The rest of the question is addressed very well by Thomas Phinney’s answer

Otherwise, if I'm not careful, it sounds like anyone could just copyright my work as their own

Copyright does not work like this. If you created something and did not sign any contracts to transfer your copyright, you hold the copyright. If you have proof of this (e.g., you put the font online first), it nobody should be able to (illegally) take that right from you. Thanks to the Universal Copyright Convention and the Berne Convention, this holds at least in all major countries. In some jurisdictions, copyright is not transferrable at all.

The SIL Open Font License refers to something called Registered Font Names (or [RFNs]): is this the act of registering a word or phrase for the express purpose of reserving it for a font, as opposed to registering a business name for example? If not, what IS the correct way to register the name of a font, or is it part of registering the design?

It’s reserved font name, not registered font name. The reserved font name is something you declare when putting your font under the OFL (which is a thing that you do unilateraly): It’s simply placeholders in the OFL for you to fill out. The main effect of this is that somebody who wants to create another font based on your font needs to select a new font name :

The fonts, including any derivative works, can be bundled, embedded, redistributed and/or sold with any software provided that any reserved names are not used by derivative works

This is the only mention of reserved name in the body of the OFL. A practical purpose of this is to avoid confusion due to doubly used font names. Of course you can still explicitly allow somebody to use your reserved font name, e.g., if you do not plan to continue working on the font.

  • when you say "Copyright does not work like this. If you created something and did not sign any contracts to transfer your copyright, you hold the copyright. If you have proof of this (e.g., you put the font online first), it nobody should be able to (illegally) take that right from you. Thanks to the Universal Copyright Convention and the Berne Convention, this holds at least in all major countries. In some jurisdictions, copyright is not transferrable at all." are you saying i don't even need a copyright if I can prove I made it (first) – Moscarda Jan 20 '16 at 18:25
  • p.s. how do i highlight a quote in yellow like that? – Moscarda Jan 20 '16 at 18:25
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    @Moscarda: are you saying i don't even need a copyright if I can prove I made it (first) – No, you automatically hold the copyright of everything you create (unless you signed contracts saying otherwise or it does reach a minimum originality thershold). What I am saying is that copyright cannot be stolen easily. To “steal” your copyright, somebody would have to convince others that he created something first, when indeed he did not. This is very difficult and should be illegal (i.e., a high risk). – Wrzlprmft Jan 20 '16 at 18:38
  • @Moscarda: Regarding your PS: Prepend a >, but this does not work in comments. See this for more. – Wrzlprmft Jan 20 '16 at 18:39

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