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This topic is hotly debated at regular intervals on comp.fonts. Terry Carroll. provides the following analysis of current [ed: as of 6/92] legislation and regulation regarding fonts and copyrights in the United States. Terry is ``Editor in Chief'' of Volume 10 of the Santa Clara Computer and High Technology Law Journal. Members of the comp.fonts community are encouraged to submit other materials that add clarity to the issue.
It has been pointed out that this section deals primarily font copyright issues relevant to the United States and that this situation is not universal. For example, in many parts of Europe typeface designs are protectable.
``First, the short answer in the USA: Typefaces are not copyrightable; bitmapped fonts are not copyrightable, but scalable fonts are copyrightable. Authorities for these conclusions follow.
Before we get started, let's get some terminology down:
A typeface is a set of letters, numbers, or other symbolic characters, whose forms are related by repeating design elements consistently applied in a notational system and are intended to be embodied in articles whose intrinsic utilitarian function is for use in composing text or other cognizable combinations of characters.
A font is the computer file or program that is used to represent or create the typeface.
Now, on to the legal authorities:
Volume 37 of the Code of Federal Regulations specifies this about the copyrightability of typefaces:
``The following are examples of works not subject to copyright and applications for registration of such works cannot be entertained: . . . typeface as typeface'' 37 CFR 202.1(e).
The regulation is in accordance with the House of Representatives report that accompanied the new copyright law, when it was passed in 1976:
``The Committee has considered, but chosen to defer, the possibility of protecting the design of typefaces. A 'typeface' can be defined as a set of letters, numbers, or other symbolic characters, whose forms are related by repeating design elements consistently applied in a notational system and are intended to be embodied in articles whose intrinsic utilitarian function is for use in composing text or other cognizable combinations of characters. The Committee does not regard the design of typeface, as thus defined, to be a copyrightable 'pictorial, graphic, or sculptural work' within the meaning of this bill and the application of the dividing line in section 101.'' H. R. Rep. No. 94-1476, 94th Congress, 2d Session at 55 (1976), reprinted in 1978 U.S. Cong. and Admin. News 5659, 5668.
It's also in accordance with the one court case I know of that has considered the matter: Eltra Corp. V. Ringer, 579 F.2d 294, 208 USPQ 1 (1978, C.A. 4, Va.).
The U.S. Copyright Office holds that a bitmapped font is nothing more than a computerized representation of a typeface, and as such is not copyrightable:
``The [September 29, 1988] Policy Decision [published at 53 FR 38110] based on the [October 10,] 1986 Notice of Inquiry [published at 51 FR 36410] reiterated a number of previous registration decisions made by the [Copyright] Office. First, under existing law, typeface as such is not registerable. The Policy Decision then went on to state the Office's position that 'data that merely represents an electronic depiction of a particular typeface or individual letterform' [that is, a bitmapped font] is also not registerable.'' 57 FR 6201.
However, scalable fonts are, in the opinion of the Copyright Office, computer programs, and as such are copyrightable:
``... the Copyright Office is persuaded that creating scalable typefonts using already-digitized typeface represents a significant change in the industry since our previous [September 29, 1988] Policy Decision. We are also persuaded that computer programs designed for generating typeface in conjunction with low resolution and other printing devices may involve original computer instructions entitled protection under the Copyright Act. For example, the creation of scalable font output programs to produce harmonious fonts consisting of hundreds of characters typically involves many decisions in drafting the instructions that drive the printer. The expression of these decisions is neither limited by the unprotectable shape of the letters nor functionally mandated. This expression, assuming it meets the usual standard of authorship, is thus registerable as a computer program.'' 57 FR 6202.''