Protection for Font Designers

Typeface designers and font creators who wish to protect their work from plagiarism will find that the intellectual property laws for typographic design differ slightly from laws geared toward writers. Copyrights, patents, and trademarks are some of the ways in which type designers protect their work from plagiarism. Before I discuss these, however, I want to clarify the definitions of font and typeface. A font is the code that creates the type design on a computer screen, and a typeface is a collection of characters. Although these terms are often used interchangeably, the distinction matters for the intellectual property laws that surround typographic design.

Now, let’s look at copyright. On the website of the US Copyright Office, under definitions of what can be subject to protection, the closest category that a typeface might fall into is the section on pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works. A typeface fulfills the first half of the section’s requirement as a “two-dimensional and three-dimensional work of fine, graphic, and applied art” but doesn’t meet the second half of the requirements. This is where it’s stated that the design must “include works of artistic craftsmanship insofar as their form but not their mechanical or utilitarian aspects”; in other words, only the aesthetic elements of a design piece will be subject to copyright. In order to qualify for copyright protection under the section I listed above, a designer’s work must be “identified separately from, and [be] capable of existing independently of, the utilitarian aspects,” which makes it impossible for typeface to use this section of the law. A typeface uses the alphabet as the basis of its design, and this is a utilitarian aspect that is impossible to separate from the type design. Attempting to separate the two might just leave the flourishes and a few serifs in the “artistic” category. For that reason (and various others), typeface in and of itself is not subject to copyright.

However, the computer programs that create the typeface on a screen can still be copyrighted. Even if the output—the typeface—can’t be copyrighted, the code that creates it can be. At the same time, others can still draw “inspiration” from a typeface and attempt to recreate the code.

Trademark is Robert Bringhurst’s first choice in intellectual property law against plagiarism of typeface. The author of The Elements of Typographic Style believes registering a typeface under trademark will protect the brand of the design because it forces imitators to use another name. He highlights how odd it is to protect the title of a work when usually in the publishing industry it is the content that matters, but typeface has faced challenges and will likely continue to do so. Trademarks need to be renewed every ten years.

Other methods of protection from typeface plagiarism are utility and design patents. According to the US Patent and Trademark Office, in order to obtain a utility patent the creator must invent “…any new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof.” This means that if a designer wishes to patent a font, the design must be an arguably useful improvement on the characters used in communication. The design could be defended on the grounds that it is more modern, that it gives a better sense of feeling, or that it helps with readability. However, the requirement of “novelty and non-obviousness” restricts the protection offered to font programs. This requirement means that the design must be a new invention; it needs to be a font program, which is something the everyday person doesn’t see when they read a sign, a book, or a typographic logo. Utility patents last for twenty years, whereas design patents last for fourteen years.

So, if you’re a font creator or a typeface designer hoping to protect your work from plagiarism, you might want to consider using more than one of the intellectual property laws after reading about some of their limitations.

DRM: To Prevent Piracy or Secure Loyalty?

The debate over the pros and cons of Digital Rights Management (DRM)—a layer of security that ties copyrighted works to a user in an effort to prohibit unlawful use or distribution—rambles on into 2018.

What started as a clause in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998 to protect the infringement of copyrighted works such as movies, books, and music, has blossomed into a full-fledged debate on who owns, who can modify, and who can repair the products consumers purchase. These products range from cell phones and cars to children’s toys and ebooks, making it almost certain that everyone has at least one DRM-protected product in their home. The companies who place the DRM on these products control who uses, modifies, and distributes the copyrighted works and products.

A popular example of DRM in children’s toys comes with Sony’s robot dog, Aibo, which was recently re-released in Japan for $1,740 with a monthly subscription fee. Sony’s original robot dog, released in 1999, faced a boycott after the company forced a customer to remove the modifying code that made the dog dance and perform other tricks not found in Sony’s code. The company made sure to “double down” on DRM for the recent release, barring all modifications and ensuring consumer loyalty through subscriptions that allow the dog to operate only on Sony servers. And yes, the new Aibo does dance.

How does this relate to publishing? DRM is commonly used to deter unlawful distribution of an ebook purchased by a consumer. However, the debate circles around if DRMs actually prohibit piracy of an ebook or simply serve to keep the company relevant. Just as Sony uses DRM to stop modifications that enhance their code and ensure customer loyalty through subscriptions, DRMs can prohibit consumers from seeking other companies to support their digital ebooks.

For example: if a customer purchases Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders for Amazon’s Kindle, they can only read this ebook for as long as they have an Amazon Kindle account (or the free app). If another company comes out with a newer, better ebook reader, the consumer cannot simply take their lawfully purchased Lincoln in the Bardo and consume it on the new reader, as DRM prevents this file maneuver. Writer Craig Mod aptly states:

The potential power of digital is that it can take the ponderous and isolated nature of physical things and make them light and movable….This is where DRM hurts books most….It artificially imposes the heaviness and isolation of physical books on their digital counterparts, which should be loose, networked objects.

In this instance, DRM locks files not only to prevent redistribution, but to prevent customers from moving on to the next big product down the road. The Kindle user may think twice about investing in the newest ebook reader, as that may involve losing their perfectly curated collection of sci-fi novels or giving up numerous files of crime dramas.

If copyright laws (as many judges have claimed in their copyright rulings, including the Authors Guild v. Google, the lawsuit over Google Books) are in place to promote innovation, DRM should do the same. Lawmakers should turn their ears toward consumers that wish to transfer lawfully purchased files across devices owned by different companies. The law was made to protect copyrighted works, not inhibit lawful consumer access. Infant companies should be able to strive for better readers and better ways to transfer purchasable files without worrying about big players like Amazon crushing them before inception. Innovation over monopolization!