Patents, Tradenames and Copyrights

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November 14, 2013 at 10:44 PM #5206


GoudyLeaf-LeftDisclaimer: THP is not a law practice! The information presented below is compiled from personal observation of 19th-century patents for type designs, duplication and changing of tradenames, and recent copyright regulations. For definitive advice, please consult an attorney specializing in Intellectual Property Rights.

Revivals pose special issues for font developers. The first two involve the US Patent and Trademark Office (and its counterparts abroad):

Design Patents. The first US design patent was issued in 1842 to George Bruce, who had personally designed and cut a collection of scripts and related ornaments. Until 1861, rights expired after seven years.¹ Thereafter, the applicant chose a term of 3.5, 7 or 14 years (depending on the fee paid²). Once it expires, it cannot be renewed and the design becomes “public domain.”

  • It is perfectly legal to copy the letterforms of any patented typeface after the term expires.
  • Since revivals are not “new, novel and non-obvious,” they are not patentable.

All patents including design patents (administered by a special USPTO branch) expire for a specific reason with a centuries-old precedent: to encourage citizens to improve the invention.

  • While it is legal to copy the glyphs, it is highly unethical for a revival developer to imply that he/she created the letterforms as the “designer.”
  • THP Partners never claim artistic credit for revivals. Instead, they proudly offer their work as authentic replicas of past masterpieces. They perform the valuable service of archiving these “endangered” faces for posterity.
  • Sometimes they “upgrade” them with new lower-case alphabets, extensive alternate letterforms, ligatures, diacritic characters, chromatic separations, etc.
  • They deserve a great deal of credit for producing these special fonts—from gathering rare specimens to manually kerning pairs of letters painstakingly vectorized from scanned images.

Tradenames. Type tradenames (trademarks) are UNRELATED to specific typefaces. The owner may assign it to any font. Unlike design patents, tradename rights may be renewed indefinitely by timely payment of fees.

  • The “trademark” dialog of a font-creation program does not confer legal ownership, which is granted only by registration, a lengthy and expensive process best handled by a specialized attorney.
  • A FontLab button labeled “Check at” may alert you that the tradename you intend is already in use by someone else represented by this vendor.

Some highly conscientious revival developers have been threatened with litigation for trademark infringement (example example).

  • For the following reasons, THP must reluctantly recommend that Partners chose unique names for their products:
    • Avoid legal hassles!
    • Avoid competition with other revivals of the same face.
  • THP publications and eCommerce venue always document known pre-digital tradenames of faces illustrated.

Before deciding on the tradename for your revival, it is wise to “google” it in case someone else chose it first. The FontLab “Information” dialog presents a button labeled “Check at MyFonts.” It links to a search of tradenames in use there.

Copyrights. Copyrights are administered by the US Library of Congress (and its counterparts abroad). They identify who may exercise the right to copy a creative work. This right is automatically conferred exclusively to the author or, if work for hire (more below), the author’s employer or client. Infringement complaints are much easier to prosecute if the copyright is registered.

  • Typeface designs per sé do not quality as creative works (copies of the alphabet, public domain).
  • What IS copyrightable as “creative” is the appearance of the unique code for producing digital fonts.²
  • The Right to Copy your font belongs only to YOU, the revival developer.
  • The same protection applies to your specimens, which are unmistakably creative works.
  • In most cases after 1977, the term of a copyright expires 70 years after the author’s death.
  • Unless bequeathed to specific heirs, copyrights of deceased authors are divided among a surviving spouse, children and/or other family members.
  • Copyright registration is easy to do online and inexpensive too.
  • Please register your copyrights!
  • When entering a copyright notice into your font editor’s dialog, it is best to spell out the word or substitute “(c)”—Adobe warns that the © symbol is not universally supported.
  • Library of Congress guidelines indicate that the year should be the first record, followed by your name and/or company name.

Work for Hire. Copyrights conferred to authors in the course of employment are automatically transferred to the employer or client.

  • THP Partners are not employees; on the contrary, they are self-employed.
  • THP has no claim to Intellectual Property rights for your work.

¹Ladas & Parry, LLC (Multiple US Cities): A Brief History of the Patent Law of the United States.
²Dan X. Solo (2007), personal communication.

Continue to FontLab screenshots and instructions for “built-in” information about the original design and the revival.


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