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Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash
Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

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The IP of designer fonts

No matter what service or product a company is selling, chances are they are using some kind of font in their marketing materials. While many people assume that fonts can be used freely, font programmes and their underlying typefaces are actually intellectual property protected by copyright.

In 2009, Font Bureau, an American type foundry, sued NBC Universal for failing to secure the rights to a handful of its trademarked fonts, which were used to promote programmes like The Tonight Show and Saturday Night Live.

According to the Society of Publication Designers, Font Bureau argued that NBC paid for just a single license which permitted the company to install the typefaces on a single computer and the rights to a limited number of fonts. But NBC went ahead and copied the fonts to a bunch of other computers within the company and also started using several other fonts for which licenses were never obtained.

Font Bureau asked for a compensation of US$2 million in damages. It argued that NBC's unauthorised use caused injury to Font Bureau's relationships with present and prospective customers and would cause confusion, mistake, and deception as to the source of Font Bureau’s trademarks, making it more difficult to broker licensing deals with other companies.

A similar scenario happened in 2012, when designers working on a campaign website for presidential candidate Rick Santorum allegedly used a typeface called Fedra without paying for it. Peter Bil’ak, the founder of Dutch type foundry Typotheque and Fedra’s creator, accused web development company Raise Digital of using an unauthorised derivative version of the trademarked font on Santorum’s site. Bil’ak hired IP lawyer Frank Martinez to fight the case, and the latter argued that Raise Digital had deprived Typotheque of US$2 million in fees. The site in question was ultimately was shuttered.

Know your letters

A typeface is a set of letters, numbers and other symbols whose forms are related by repeating certain design elements that are consistently applied (for example, Calibri), used to compose text or other combination of characters. A font is a programme in your computer or mobile that informs your screen how a letter or character is shown (for example – Calibri Regular, Calibri Bold, Calibri Italic, etc).

Of course, typefaces and fonts that come bundled with software such as Microsoft Office are usually licensed for use with that software. But there are many designers who create their own typefaces and sell it for commercial use.

It takes lots of hard work to come up with a new typeface. Designers never create a new typeface by directly modifying an old one. Instead, they draw inspiration from the historical origins and learn about the elements that the make the letterforms unique, and then aim to derive a new version. Sometimes, designers may also create a digital version of an otherwise unavailable typeface.

Depending on the jurisdiction, companies or entrepreneurs who purchase these typefaces for a fee are legally bounded by a licensing agreement with the vendor for using it on desktop, web and a mobile app.

So, when an individual or a company is deciding on new marketing materials, it is imperative to check whether the font being considered needs a license in order to avoid breaking copyright laws. Otherwise, the writing’s very likely on the wall when it comes to dealing with the consequences.

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Mark Laudi

Mark Laudi

Press contact Managing Partner (+65) 6223 2249

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