When Typefaces and Fonts Meet Piracy and Plagiarism

Typeface ImageA recent article in Wired focused on piracy and typefaces and painted a grim picture about the industry.

Typeface designers, it would seem, are beset on all sides. They have a product that is expensive to create, trivial to pirate and easy to imitate or knock off. To make matters worse, though the public has become more aware of the copyright rules around movies, music and books, it’s still largely clueless when it comes to typefaces.

Though they enjoy a wide range of intellectual property protection including, in some cases, copyright, patent and trademark protection, they’ve largely been largely unable to combat misuse of their product because of gaps in that protection.

Fortunately though, new approaches are being tried and, when combined with increased awareness of the problem, they may begin to shift the needle some.

Typefaces and Intellectual Property

Typekit LogoTypefaces are one of the few areas of intellectual property where all three major types of intellectual property may apply.

  1. Copyright: Though one can’t copyright the alphabet or even the specific design of a typeface, the file itself that contains the typeface and installs it on a machine is considered copyrighted software, meaning it can be protected under the law.
  2. Trademark: The name of the typeface enjoys trademark protection and a specific font may as well if it is designed and used exclusively for a corporate logo.
  3. Patent: Design patents can be awarded to typefaces that are adequately original.

But while typefaces can enjoy protection under all three major intellectual property types, there are some very large blind spots.

The biggest is that, if one creates a font that, while original, doesn’t qualify for patent protection, there’s nothing to stop someone else from creating a similar font so long as they don’t use the same exact code and don’t use it in a trademark infringing way.

In that regard, fonts face a similar issue to fashion. Fashion designs are considered useful articles and, though images printed onto clothing can be protected under copyright, the actual cut and style of the product itself can not be copyrighted.

However, fashion brands obviously enjoy trademark protection and truly novel designs can earn design patents. But, just as with typefaces, design patents are cost-prohibitive, requiring thousands of dollars to obtain and maintain.

As a result, both fashion designers and typeface designers alike have to deal with the fact that, as soon as they create a desirable product, there will be knockoffs and only a limited amount can be done about it.

And knock offs are legion when it comes to typefaces and fonts. Many free and inexpensive font sites trade heavily in such fonts, often with names that are meant to remind the viewer of the original font, but not be a complete trademark infringement.

You can even purchase guides that will help you find free fonts similar to big-name (and expensive) alternatives.

But why bother finding a similar free font when you can just as easily pirate the exact font you want? This is a question far too many font consumers have found themselves asking in recent years.

The Piracy Problem

The Pirate Bay LogoTypeface files tend to be very small, many typeface downloads are just a few KB in size though some are up to a few dozen MB. Either way, the size of a download for a typeface is dwarfed by an album of songs or a DVD movie, both of which are routinely swapped on file sharing sites.

The result of this is that pirate sites often have huge libraries of fonts and typefaces for download. Sometimes thousands or even hundreds of thousands in one download. It’s trivial to pirate not just one specific needed typeface, but thousands of others all in one stroke.

And consumers are routinely oblivious to the infringing nature of typeface piracy. Though recent efforts have made at least most people aware that it is illegal to pirate movies, books, songs and games, typefaces are much more unclear.

Most consumers have never paid directly for a typeface. Instead, they are used to opening up their favorite word processor and having countless font choices at their disposal immediately seemingly for free.

Most are unaware that Microsoft, Apple and others either license or create the typefaces they offer, generally at some expense that is then rolled into the cost of the application or the computer.

As such, many consumers don’t feel bad downloading typefaces and fonts illegally, either not realizing it is illegal or not caring. This makes it even more difficult to convince consumers to pay the price tag for the fonts they need.

The Good News

Fontstand LogoThe good news is that, such as with photographers, the primary marketplace for typefaces has almost always been commercial and professional, targeting graphic designers, media companies, software developers, etc.

Individual consumers, though often wanting more font choices, are generally satisfied with the typefaces that come with their computer or software. So, as long the typefaces built into the application are legitimate, there isn’t much of a market for selling new ones.

Larger media companies have been successfully sued for violating copyright in typeface files. The most notable case involved The Font Bureau, which sued NBC after, it alleges, NBC exceeded what its license in one of its typefaces. Though the case was settled and the terms were undisclosed, it shows that typeface designers can and do sue larger companies that misuse their work.

Then there are also new business approaches, such as Fontstand, which, according to the Wired article, aims to be an “iTunes for Fonts”. It not only makes it easy to browse and buy fonts but offers a novel approach to selling them, allowing users to “rent” a font for 30 days at 10% of the cost.

Users can also share a rental with a coworker for a small additional fee. This not only makes it easy acquire typefaces, but to fully comply with the license, preventing accidental infringements.

While Fontstand isn’t going to completely solve the problems Typeface designers face, it is the type of creativity that not only helps combat piracy, but also find new markets and new ways to sell the product.

Bottom Line

Typeface design has come a long way from when each letter was made out of metal. But while computers have made typefaces and fonts a much bigger part of everyone’s life, it’s also created a slew of challenges for those who dedicate their lives to making the typefaces we all enjoy.

This is compounded by the fact that typefaces sit at the center of three different types of intellectual property but is still not covered completely. Couple that with consumer confusion and you have an environment where typeface plagiarism, knockoffs and piracy are all rampant.

Unfortunately though, typeface designers have a harder path ahead than many other content creators. Working with expensive content to create that is easy to steal and routinely given away is a bad combination in the Internet age.

Still, as we’ve seen in other creative industries, there has been a push to find new ways to connect with the market both to combat infringement and to reach out to new markets. Coupled with effective copyright enforcement, can help blunt the sword of plagiarism and piracy.

The road ahead won’t be easy, but there is definitely still a road to be found.

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