Intellectual Property

Company Sues Over Unauthorized Use of Its Fonts

In today's digital world, practically everybody types on a computer for all sorts of reasons, such as writing a report for school, preparing a presentation for your boss, and writing and editing articles for your desktop publishing business. All that typing means we're using fonts. You may not have thought about it much, or maybe you actively look for new and different fonts to use. In either case, a recent lawsuit should make you wonder if you're breaking any copyright laws by downloading and using fonts for your own personal or business reasons.

The Suit

Font Bureau, Inc. designs and sells many different kinds of fonts. In a recent lawsuit filed in a New York federal court, Font Bureau claims that media powerhouse NBC Universal (NBC) misused fonts that are owned by Font Bureau. Specifically, claims are made that NBC copied the computer software containing certain fonts designed by Font Bureau and used the copied software in its business.

Font Bureau is suing for $2 million because it says it lost profits from licensing the fonts, and its relationships with current and new clients have been damaged, all because of NBC's illegal use of the fonts.

Fonts, Copyright Laws, and Licensing

Technically, a "font" is a computer file or program that's used to tell your printer how to print the shape of a letter of character or how it's supposed to look on your computer screen. The actual shape of the letters and characters is called the "typeface." For example, "Times New Roman" is a typeface, but the software that tells your printer how to print an "A" in Times New Roman is the font.

US copyright laws protect "original works of authorship," such as writings, art work, and music. It also protects computer software. A copyright gives the owner the right to control the way his work is used by others. Generally, you need the owner's permission to copy and use his copyrighted work. As a general rule, the copyright laws don't cover typefaces, but fonts may be protected by copyright so long as the font qualifies as computer software or a program. Today, most fonts you come across are in fact programs or software.

Licensing is when an owner of copyrighted material lets someone use that material. When it comes to fonts and computer software, a license is usually called an End User License Agreement. Usually, you're charged a fee for the license, and the agreement limits how you may use the software. For example, an agreement typically lets you use the software on one computer only.

That's the problem in the Font Bureau case. It claims that the licensing agreement it had with NBC allowed it to use the fonts in only one place or location, but NBC copied the software and used it in other offices or business units.

Using Fonts

If you buy a font program either from a brick-and-mortar store or from an online retailer, a licensing agreement will be included. Read it carefully. There likely will be a lot to read, but it will probably say that you can't download it to more than one computer and that you can't give it to anyone else to use. If you follow the rules, you may use the fonts your own personal or business needs. There are "free" fonts, too, but you need to be careful. Some web sites that offer "free" fonts actually offer fonts that were illegally copied. If you download a stolen or "pirated" font and the owner discovers it, you may be guilty of copyright "infringement." If so, you may have to pay the owner money damages, and maybe even turnover any profits you made by using the fonts. That's basically what Font Bureau is suing NBC for. Here are some tips to help you avoid legal trouble:

  • If you buy font software and you're allowed to download it to one computer only, but you need to install it on more than one computer, buy another license for each computer
  • Don't give your software to anyone else to "borrow," and resist the temptation to take the software if it's offered to you by a friend or colleague
  • Before you download "free" fonts from one of the hundreds of web sites that offer them, check to see if the web site offers any copyright information about the fonts - do they have permission to give the fonts away?
  • Check web sites of companies like Font Bureau that design and license fonts. These companies offer some of their fonts for free 

It’s fun to play around with different typefaces when designing a brochure or party invitation. Just be certain the one you select is available for your purposes.

Questions For Your Attorney

  • I just got a letter from a software company demanding that I stop using its fonts in my business - I design web sites. What should I do?
  • I bought a used laptop and it has some font software installed on it. Can I use that software?
  • My friend gave me a copy of a font program she bought, and when I installed it on my computer, I completed the online software registration forms that popped up automatically. Doesn't that mean I have a license to use the software, so I can't get into any trouble, right?
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