Fonts are intellectual property too

By John McCallum

You’ve invested time and money into designing your corporate logo, but have you remembered to obtain permission to use your selected typeface?

In today’s competitive business world, one of the best ways to increase awareness of a company is via an instantly recognisable logo. That way, as soon as people think of a sector, they immediately picture the logo of the leading organisation. For example, most people who think of Barclays Bank can easily call to mind its logo of light blue writing over dark blue background. The same is true for British Airways, Orange, Coca-Cola and many other leading brands.

When a company is deciding on a new logo or marketing collateral, one of the most crucial decisions is the style of the typeface that the name of the organisation is to appear in. Because it will be used in all forms of communication, the typeface selected can help create the brand or corporate image.

However, companies should not forget that font designs and fonts software are classed as intellectual property (IP), and so should not be used without first obtaining permission or putting licensing agreements in place.

Within the font design industry, the IP implications of using typefaces are relatively common knowledge. However, many companies (even those that spend millions on their new corporate or brand identities) are not aware of this, meaning that the font design industry is subject to an alarmingly high degree of idea and content theft.

Why are fonts protected?
Fonts are individual pieces of design in their own right, as represented in software code. The art of designing a typeface is a complex and highly skilled discipline. It requires design know-how, painstaking precision and attention to detail. In many cases, even with all the digital tools that we have today, it can take many months to produce a new typeface. That’s why digital fonts are subject to copyright and trademark laws.

Like other areas in the software industry, piracy is prevalent. In a recent study by industry research firm IDC, global software piracy was estimated to represent 35% of all usage. However, it is probable that the percentage of illegal font software in use is much higher than that for software in general. That’s because fonts are more portable and more easily transmitted from user to user, either as standalone software or embedded within electronic documents.

There are actually two types of theft: deliberate and accidental. On the one hand, there are software pirates looking to steal/copy/plagiarise and make money out of font theft; however, on the other hand, many companies use fonts illegally, without realising that they are doing so. This is the main reason why font design companies are committed to increasing awareness that fonts are IP too.

The importance of protection
The implications of this high level of piracy within the font industry are considerably further reaching than one would immediately think. Firstly, it means that the whole font design process is at risk as designers, who earn their living from royalties paid for their work, move out of the industry. This leads to a slowdown in innovation, which leads to a decreased supply of new fonts. Secondly, font misuse can actually affect the whole supply chain of a product, such as a consumer good or a piece of hardware or software. Font selection occurs at a very early stage in the development of a product. If the manufacturer is using an illegal font and something goes wrong, this could result in the withdrawal of an entire product line or campaign, which could prove costly and damaging to the brand and to the company’s reputation.

Therefore, one of the earliest and main challenges for companies wanting to refresh their brand or launch a new product, is to make sure that they are ‘font compliant’ to avoid any unnecessary disruptions. The question is: how?

Fonts are owned by various foundries or independent typeface designers. Most foundries license fonts for use on a set number of workstations and printers. Collections of fonts can be purchased more competitively in groups, or as libraries.

If you’re not sure, ask
It is important to note that the scope of usage of the fonts is governed by the licence agreement under which the fonts are supplied. The licence terms can differ between foundries. For example, most foundries, but not all, do not allow the distribution of fonts beyond a set number of workstations without an additional licence. As such, in order to become fully compliant, the first step is to approach the owning foundry for information on the most appropriate license. Similarly, any company that has doubts about its licensing position should contact its respective font supplier or publisher.

About the author

John McCallum
John is the managing director of Monotype Imaging Holdings Inc., a provider of text imaging solutions. The Company offers technologies and fonts that enable the display and printing of digital text on a variety of consumer electronic devices, including laser printers, digital copiers, mobile phones, digital televisions, set-top boxes, and digital cameras as well as in numerous software applications and operating systems. Monotype Imaging has a range of font licence management services (Font Explorer X) to help companies become fully compliant.