Legal issues with using fonts?

lourettab's picture

I'm trying to understand the legal issues in using fonts in logo designs and in other ways. I tried searching the forums (and Google) but can't seem to find anything definitive about this.

I read that "fonts cannot be copyrighted" (meaning the letterforms themselves) but that the "programs" (the actual font files) used to control them can. I also read that if you convert a font to outlines, there are no copyright issues at all and the outlines can be used freely since the actual letterforms can't be copyrighted. This sounds a bit bizarre to me. Is it true?

If this is the case, does that mean the paradigm is that you (as a designer) purchase a font so that you can legally use it to create a document (a newsletter for example), then render the letterforms (by printing the document, converting the letters to outlines, rasterizing the document, etc.) so the document doesn't contain the actual font "program" itself so you can freely distribute the document without paying the font's owner any licensing fees?

From what I've read of the court rulings on this issue, it seems the intention was to avoid a situation where a fontmaker could require that a reader purchase a font themselves and own a license to it before they can legally obtain a copy of a document set in it, since that would mean for example that anyone who wanted to read a magazine would have to buy licenses to all the fonts used in it first. That makes sense - if a font owner could do that, it would be like Berol "copyrighting" their colored pencils and saying that anyone who wanted to buy a drawing made with them would have to buy a license to the pencils themselves first. So the letterforms in a font would be like the pigmented "lead" and the font file would be like the wood tube that it comes in. (Hopefully that makes sense.)

So, is this actually true? If it is, does it extend to using fonts in logo designs as well? And if the situation doesn't work this way, how does it work? There seems to be a lot of confusion on this based on the message threads I've been reading.

Thomas Phinney's picture

Ben: Why not just contact Font Bureau and see if they can do you a special deal of some sort?

Sometimes smaller foundries are quite willing to give discounts for such cases. Heck, when I was at Adobe I occasionally used my employee discount to buy software (including sometimes fonts) and just give it to non-profits I liked.



paragraph's picture

@Richard Fink
Sorry, I was asleep (since 13.Jul.2009 10.46am). Doesn't time fly!

Richard Fink's picture


Go back to napping. I'm sorry I woke you. It wasn't worth it. Sorry.


Si_Daniels's picture

>However, there is no way in the world that my school newspaper would ever in a million years be able to pay like $600 to use each of the fonts.

Do you use stolen Macs or bootleg copies of InDesign at the school? If not someone must have felt the equipment and software was worth the investment.

Uli's picture


> Are the font companies going to sue my school, sue me?

Nobody will have the courage to sue you or your school.

Read the last messages of this thread for explanation:

Thomas Phinney's picture

Don't believe most of what Uli says about intellectual property as regards fonts. He is demonstrably wrong most of the time.

Té Rowan's picture

Does that factor in that he's a German and you're a Merkin?

Té Rowan's picture

Uli, you are soooo not an AFPer. Merkin == USAmerican.

d.miller's picture

Hey, i was hoping you could help me.
I am illustrating a book in which the author has used many kinds of fonts,and now he is not sure if it is legal or not.
He has made it my job to find out all about it.
Do i have to check font by font if it has copyright or not, or should i contact the designer? how do i find out which fonts are protected and maybe should ne baught?
please let me know if you have any idea.

thank you

Té Rowan's picture

The simplest possible advice I can think of:

1. Anything from a torrent (or other bulk download) site, is best not used for publishing.

2. Anything the author acquired legally is very likely safe to use.

Pmac's picture

I apologize if this question has already been covered. If you design a t-shirt graphic with various typefaces, you outline all type and then sell the design who is responsible for the licensing? The designer, the person who bought the design and then reproduced it, or know one since the font was outlined?

kurtnewman's picture

There are two ways you can find and fulfill with company attorneys in Florida. One is the conventional way of recommendations. The second is through the Internet, where you can check out a company's website. Generally, a company attorney would provide lawful guidance, guidance, and reflection.
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