Arguments Against Copyright Protection of Typefaces and Our Responses

Some have argued against copyright for typefaces. Yet their arguments—the most common of which are shown here—have little or no basis.

Patricia Lillie


It's the alphabet. How can you copyright the alphabet? We all use it; it belongs to everyone.

No one is trying to copyright the alphabet. We want protection for our interpretations of the alphabet. There is a precedent for this in US copyright law: folk tales are considered to be in the public domain. They are considered common cultural property. Coming from the oral tradition, they predate the existence of copyright. Most of them predate the existence of the United States.

If you go into a book store or library, you can find hundreds of books, both children's books and adult novels, based on these old stories. The text of each of these books is fully protected by US copyright. If you copy it, publish it, resell it, or in any way try to pass it off as your own, you will be in trouble. It is the writer's original telling, his particular interpretation of these stories that is protected. (And if you have any doubt about the originality of these derivative works, take a look at the late, great James Marshall's "Red Riding Hood" when you have a chance.)

Parents are still free to tell these stories to their children. You are still free to write your own version. You are not, however, free to appropriate someone else's copyrighted version. (Write your own telling of Snow White, but if you name the dwarves Doc, Grumpy, Sneezy, etc., there is a Mean Mouse with Big Lawyers in your future.)

Copyright for type designs would provide the same protection for type designers. You will still be free to write letters. You will still be free to design your own typeface. But you won't be free to take someone else's work and sell it as your own.

A typeface is entirely derivative. An "A" is an "A" is an "A."

If an "A" is an "A" is an "A," why do people have so many fonts, and why are they always looking for more? If there was nothing "original" in any typeface design, they would be indistinguishable from one another. It wouldn't matter which one you used. You would only need one font on your computer.

Every time you make a decision to purchase or use this font instead of that font, you are making a decision based on the artist's (type designer's) original interpretation of the alphabet.

The alphabet is the basis of the written word. Copyrighting it will infringe on freedom of speech.

Freedom of speech protects our right to hold opinions and ideas and our freedom to express them. It means I can state my opinions and you can disagree with them (and express that disagreement). Freedom of speech does not depend on or guarantee our right to have those words set in any particular typeface. You are most likely reading these words in the most utilitarian of typefaces. My freedom of speech is not hampered because you are not reading it in the trendy type of the moment.

If typefaces were copyrighted, the owner of the copyright could refuse to let an organization he or she disapproved of use it.

First, because of the way fonts are marketed, it's very unlikely this would happen. But even if it did, so what? Songwriters can refuse to license their copyrighted work for a campaign or product they don't like. What does the organization do? They find another song. And they could find another typeface. (And by arguing that they can't, it must be one particular typeface as distinct from all others, you lend credence to the concept of typefaces as original and distinctive work, therefore eligible for copyright protection.)

Typeface copyright will kill the publishing industry. If newspapers, magazines, and book publishers have to pay royalties every time they use a font, prices will skyrocket. And what about the individual? How will they afford royalties?

When you purchase a font now, you pay a one-time fee to license certain rights of use. Although these rights may vary from foundry to foundry, nobody asks you to pay a fee every time you use that font. Copyright will not change this. What it will do is protect designers and foundries from those who take our work, rename it, and sell it as their own.

What about all those Bodonis and Garamonds and the like? They're all stolen from someone else's work.

First, if you compare a few of those Bodonis, or Garamonds, you will find many differences between the versions. More to the point, copyright is not forever. It is intended to protect the creator of the work. Bodoni died about 200 years ago. Copyright lasts for the copyright holder's lifetime, plus a set number of years; the work eventually passes into the public domain. That's why there are so many versions, some completely bowdlerized, of classic novels available for purchase. The authors may be spinning in their graves, but they are not being ripped off.

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