Legal issues with using fonts? #2

boltthecolt's picture

I am not a typographer. This is only one aspect of my job running a small 2 person operation. Hence I lack a solid understanding of what is obviously a highly complex legal and moral set of issues. The original thread gave me lots to think about but I’d like some advice if I may about a situation I find myself in. I’m starting a new thread because the original is getting so long and my question, while building on the foundations discussed in that thread, heads off in a new direction.

My company is packaging a new literacy series. Ie hundreds of small books that teach children to read. Technically we are not the publisher. We are more or less managing the project on behalf of the publisher. We have a sample design using a font that we like but that is somewhat stylised and some of the glyphs are not ideal legibility wise. Specifically the “f” and the quotation marks are not suitable. We spent massive amounts of time searching for the perfect font or even a reasonable compromise font. We could not find one. It would appear the major educational publishers have created their own for this purpose so we do not have access to them even if we believed they were the best option available.

Coming from a technical background and applying a technical perspective to the problem I thought no problem. I’ll just modify the appropriate glyphs. I downloaded FontLab Studio, opened up the font made the changes and saved it. Seemed to work. While checking something in the manual it mentioned licensing. Hmm there was a new thought. Never occurred to me that I couldn’t make derivative works. I thought that all I had to do was pay for the font and ensure everyone downstream did the same. So what could be the issue? I checked the license. They don’t allow derivative works. Now this is where it gets messy for me. Many of the terms in the license are not defined and I am having problems drawing the line between a derivative work and an original work in the sense of glyphs outlines or shapes.

In an ideal world I’d like to do just as I have done so far. License the font and make a few minor changes myself. I am unsure as to whether this transgresses the no derivative clause. What is the consensus on this one?

Assuming that the answer is yes and it is not an option, lets examine this from the designer’s perspective. At the moment she is laying out in InDesign. She has applied character styles to the problematic glyphs that stipulate the use of another font at that point. Hence the problem is sort of solved by mixing typefaces for the quotation mark issue. The “f” is a problem not easily addressed in that way however. Assuming it could, the mixing of typefaces in the layout is a messy, error prone and time consuming business. I could make it easier for her by again opening up the font in FontLab Studio, replacing the problematic glyphs with different ones (all legally licensed) as appropriate and saving it as a modified font. Is that a derivative work? I am just taking licensed fonts and repackaging them for our convenience to achieve the same outcome as before. Everyone gets their money and we get a practical workflow. What is the group-think on that one?

The previous thread seemed to have rough consensus re the issue of the outlines not being copyright. Ie converting to outlines to get round these kind of issues was more or less ‘valid’. Certainly it is common practise.

Now if I open up my ‘licensed’ font, the one I have paid money for when I pressed the “buy” button (saw that issue addressed some where in these forums too) and want to change one glyph, say back to the problem ‘f’. Now I’m assuming that it is ok to mix and match fonts (or should I say gyphs?) that I have paid for given the end logic as above is that the end product (the printed page) is identical and everyone gets their money so what is the hurt?

Now say I can’t find a suitable replacement outline for the ‘f’ so I make my own. It has to sit style wise within the font design so I kind of emulate it (the style) by eyeballing it and I end up with something that I can live with. Is that now a derivative work? The glyph has not been copied and pasted but I have done my best to copy the style. That could a copyright violation. I really don’t know. Is it?

To take this weird argument a step further: In the previous thread we seemed to agree that the outline was not copyrighted but in FontLab the glyph is just that. An outline! A shape defined by Bezier curves just as in Illustrator! Wasn't Illustrator an off shoot of Fontographer? Could I get round this situation by creating an outline of a font in Illustrator and cutting and pasting it into FontLab? Absurd argument I know. However it does, for me at least, point out how problematic the font licensing mess is.

The need for a lawyer to use a font is absurd. It is just all too hard.

I’m trying but so is this situation.

I am really curious as to your opinions on this. Both from a practical point of view (I need to know what to do) and from a more academic or abstract perspective.

Many thanks


Kazyole's picture

Let me preface this by saying that I am not a lawyer:

I would think that if you made a completely new f and quotation marks for a font you purchased, then re-exported it for your own use, you shouldn't have problems. Realistically by doing this, the only thing the type designer could reasonably accuse you of copying would be the kerning pairs for those specific characters because once you replace their f “”, fontlab is still going to apply all the kerning pairs that the designer had originally built into the file onto your new replacement glyphs. That would be the primary difference I would see between simply doing those replacements in illustrator/indesign, and making the edits more directly in fontlab (solely for your own use of course).

Honestly, I've done this to font files in the past and hadn't even thought of it as being potentially problematic (probably the first thing I did once I started working in fontlab was to export a version of futura bold that didn't have a hideous c). I also wouldn't really see the difference between what you are suggesting, and modifying specific letters of a typeface as outlines to create specific effects/unique elements in an identity mark (something which is fairly common practice).

If you really want to get fancy and make sure you avoid any possible legal issue, you could always make your f and “” in a new file in fontlab, export a font, and do a simple find/replace on all f's and “” in your layout. If you did that, I honestly don't see how anyone could accuse you of doing anything illegal. Of course then you'd have to go through and do all the metrics for those glyphs...

The concept of derivative work as I see it (and as I would be concerned with it as a type designer) would apply more to the idea of directly modifying the curves of an existing font file in fontlab, then re-exporting/re-selling the file as your own (not modifying a font file by replacing specific characters for your individual use). The world is full of "derivative" type design, so as long as you are actually making the new glyphs and not selling the work, you shouldn't have issues. There is precedent for this:

Arial is most certainly "derivative" of Helvetica (I would call it a rip-off), and it is undoubtedly legal. With Arial, we're looking at a typeface which takes the character width, metrics, and basic structures of another font, and blatantly copies them. If that's acceptable practice, I would think redoing your f would certainly be ok. Realistically, the instance of Arial is far worse than what you are proposing, because in that case, the "derivative" work is now being licensed and sold, putting it in direct competition with the original.

Now, if you were talking about modifying the f and “” in the file by dragging points around and moving curves, I would see you as falling a bit further into a nebulous grey area in which you would be opening yourself up for potential problems, since the starting point for your glyphs would directly be another person's work. Still though, designers do things like this all the time.

Honestly though (since you admitted to not being a typographer), I would advise you to contact the designer/foundry, and see if you can get them to make a version of the typeface for you that suits your needs more completely. There is a lot of subtlety that goes into making type that you shouldn't expect to be able to get right the first time. The amount of time and specific knowledge that gets put into these things is considerable, and is not something I would expect you to be able to learn in a short amount of time to properly do this modification. Since you're here on a type design forum talking about this stuff and are even scrutinizing single glyphs within a typeface, I would say it's a safe assumption that you want this done right. If that's true (which I believe it is), get a type designer to do it. Type design is a craft based on a very refined and specific skill-set, like any other, and I would urge you to have these modifications done by someone who has the requisite knowledge to do them properly.

Besides, as far as custom typefaces go, If all you need is something like modifying 3 glyphs, that shouldn't be really all that difficult to get them to do (assuming you're willing to pay them to do so).

Kazyole's picture

double posted...

ralf h.'s picture

I downloaded FontLab Studio, opened up the font made the changes and saved it. Seemed to work.

A digital font (especially today's OpenType fonts) are a rather complex piece of software. You cannot just open it, make some changes and save it again like you would do with a Word file. That's why FontLab Studio has no function to "save" the font file, but a "generate font file" function. A lot of things will happen when you generate a new file, based on many many checkboxes you need to set carefully in the FontLab preferences. That's the job of professional type designers.

(I need to know what to do)
If you need a different version of a font you should simply contact the font foundry. They can create an individual version of the font for you and make sure that everything is technically correct. In the end this will probably be even cheaper than investing your time with something you don't know how to do and maybe ending up with a faulty font that causes problems in the print production.

Khaled Hosny's picture

You can very well look for a free (as in freedom), open source font that is the closest to what you need, modify it to fit your needs completely and you are done.

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