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Volume 37 of the Code of Federal Regulations, are you saying what I think you are?
August 3, 2012 8:09 AM   Subscribe

Are bitmapped fonts still not copyrightable? How have you used bitmapped fonts in your work?

According to the comp.fonts FAQ, bitmapped fonts are not copyrightable:
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....
Is this still true?

The reason I ask is that I'd like to make a font bitmap of Helvetica at a certain size for use in an executable that will be distributed to iOS devices and the web. (I'd use the system font, but the engine I'm using doesn't let me do that.)

I can't afford to consult a lawyer for this issue, unfortunately. I'd like to hear about cases involving this if there are any, as well as common practices surrounding bitmapped fonts.
posted by ignignokt to Law & Government (14 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
 
This is not legal advice, but can you clarify your question a little?

Are you concerned about what rights you may have in the bitmapped version of Helvetica that you are making (i.e., limiting or preventing others from using your work), or about defending yourself against legal action from the people who hold the rights to Helvetica (i.e., getting sued yourself for using someone else's work)?
posted by gauche at 8:19 AM on August 3, 2012


I would imagine that creating a bitmap of a typeface that has copyright protection is not going to undo that protection. After all, every use of a font ends up as a bitmap eventually.

In other words, when you create that bitmap is when you break the copyright. Or not.
posted by gjc at 8:31 AM on August 3, 2012


The way I understand it is that scalable fonts contain a form of software code (hinting) thus are copyrightable. Commercial scalable fonts are licensed like software.

Typefaces are utilitarian objects and not copyrightable, so you could print out Helvetica and hang it on your wall, as well as render it to a bitmap. (You probably wouldn't want to copy someone else's PNG file bit-for-bit if you didn't have to)

IANAL and this is not legal advice, but *especially* since you're rendering a font that is already built into iOS, I think you'll be fine.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 9:01 AM on August 3, 2012


(And of course, you don't want to use the actual name of the font anywhere, because that's a trademark)
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 9:01 AM on August 3, 2012


I would imagine that creating a bitmap of a typeface that has copyright protection is not going to undo that protection.

There is no such thing as "a typeface that has copyright protection." Typefaces as designs do not have copyright protection. Only a specific computer file instructing the computer on how to render a given typeface can have copyright protection.
posted by enn at 9:08 AM on August 3, 2012


Are you concerned about what rights you may have in the bitmapped version of Helvetica that you are making (i.e., limiting or preventing others from using your work), or about defending yourself against legal action from the people who hold the rights to Helvetica (i.e., getting sued yourself for using someone else's work)?

All defense.

Thanks for your replies so far. I think it makes sense that a rendering of a typeface isn't copyrightable, but I would feel better if I had some precedent or example.
posted by ignignokt at 9:26 AM on August 3, 2012


Do you actually need Helvetica exactly? If not, you can always use a similar font to Helvetica that's designed with a more open license in mind. For example, Vera Sans or Liberation Sans.
posted by reptile at 9:43 AM on August 3, 2012


I have no idea whether you're licensed to create and distribute a bitmap version of the Helvetica that came on your computer. But you can buy a copy of Helvetica from Adobe or Linotype that includes the licensing provisions you need. You should be able to read the license before buying and find one that suits your needs.

It may not be necessary legally to buy another copy of the font, but it's not a big cost to cover your ass.
posted by duien at 10:10 AM on August 3, 2012


Rendered fonts are fine. Just think about it. Otherwise people wouldn't be able to use fonts for any purpose ever, whether in images on the web or in anything made for print.

This wikipedia article cites various publications of the US Copyright Office as well as the Eltra v. Ringer (typefaces not copyrightable) and the Adobe vs. Southern Software (code generating a font is copyrightable) cases.

Anyway, if you're feeling extra paranoid, use Nimbus Sans, a freely-licensed typeface that's practically a tracing of Helvetica.
posted by zsazsa at 10:15 AM on August 3, 2012


reptile, I don't, and in fact, I'm lining up other substitutes right now. MgOpen Moderna is a contender, but the kerning's just a bit too wide for my taste. Thanks! Downloading Vera and Liberation now.

duien, thanks - it didn't occur to me that Helvetica could be just $100. Sadly, that's a bit of a budget stretcher for my project, but I may go that way if I can't build enough confidence that font bitmaps are safe and can't find a suitable alternative.
posted by ignignokt at 10:16 AM on August 3, 2012


If there's any difference in the licensing of the Helvetica that came with your computer and one you buy from Adobe or Linotype, it's only for the actual font file, not with the output of software that renders it. Read the licenses yourself. They only deal with the font software itself.
posted by zsazsa at 10:21 AM on August 3, 2012


Ok, this is interesting. From the more detailed Linotype license:
You may embed static graphic images into an electronic document, including a Commercial Product, (for example, a “gif”) with a representation of a typeface and typographic design or ornament created with the Font Software as long as such images are not used as a replacement for Font Software, i.e. as long as the representations do not correspond to individual glyphs of the Font Software and may not be individually addressed by the document to render such designs and ornaments.
I'm highly doubtful this is enforceable in the United States, and also doubtful that anyone would ever notice that you're embedding rendered glyphs. But who knows. They might sue you for breaking the EULA.

So use Nimbus Sans L. It's available in the GPL Ghostscript Fonts package.
posted by zsazsa at 10:30 AM on August 3, 2012


A few decades ago it was common for companies to print out commercial fonts at large sizes and then trace their outlines to recreate them as knockoffs that were sold as "1001 fonts!" CD-ROMs. I believe this was legal because they didn't contain any kerning or hinting information, which would have given them status as protected work. Of course, they ended up looking like shit due to it, but if you all you care about is the letter forms then I don't think there's anything legally stopping you.
posted by Rhomboid at 11:49 AM on August 3, 2012


After reading your answers and talking to a lawyer (who is not my lawyer and was just giving his impression off the top of his head), I'm pretty confident using a bitmap with Helvetica characters printed on it wouldn't be a big deal and would probably go over without incident.

However, to be extra safe, I ended up using MgOpen Moderna, which is free. The kerning for capital letters is a bit off, but it works pretty well overall in my context.

Thanks, everyone!
posted by ignignokt at 11:38 AM on August 7, 2012


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