Typefaces, fonts, and their glyphs raise intellectual property considerations in copyright, trademark, design patent, and related laws. The copyright status of a typeface—and any font file that describes it digitally—varies between jurisdictions. In the United States, the shapes of typefaces are not copyrightable, though the shapes may be protected by design patent (though these are rarely applied for, the first US design patent ever awarded was for a typeface). Typefaces can be protected in other countries, including the UK, Germany, and France, by industrial design protections that are similar to copyright or design patent in that they protect the abstract shapes. Additionally, in the US and in some other countries, computer fonts—the digital instantiation of the shapes as vector outlines—may be protected by copyright on the computer code that produces them. The name of a typeface may also be protected as a trademark.
In 1916, England recognized copyright in typefaces, but protected only the design with all the letters in their particular order. The current United Kingdom copyright statute, enacted in 1989, expressly refers to copyrights in typeface designs. English law does consider that fonts are subject to copyright. However, this only covers typefaces for 25 years from first publication, and does not cover their usage by typographers.
Irish copyright law also covers typefaces. Like its United Kingdom counterpart, it allows for using the typeface in the ordinary course of printing. The term of protection is 15 years from first publication.
In Switzerland, there is no specific law for the protection of typefaces. So far, the jurisdiction has been very reluctant in admitting legal protection of any sort to typefaces. However, the denied protection is not imperative: in theory, typefaces could be protected based on both copyright and design law. Additionally, the name of a typeface can be protected by a trademark.
In Japan, typefaces have been held not to be covered by copyright, on the ground that they function primarily as a means of communicating information, rather than an appeal to aesthetic appreciation.
In Russia the legal vacuum with soviet intellectual legacy combined with absence of specific law regulation of the fonts – created the opposite situation, where all typefaces have copyright and payments can be collected by current law. According to the Russian Yur’yev legal bureau, at least 99 legal threats by Lebedev’s design studio have been about the use of studio made typefaces in Russia without payment.
Typefaces may be protected by a design patent in many countries (either automatically, by registration, or by some combination thereof). A design patent is the strongest system of protection, but the most uncommon. It is the only US legal precedent that protects the actual design (the design of the individual shapes of the letters) of the font. A prominent example is the European Union, where the automatic protection expires after three years and can be extended up to 25 years.
In 1981, Germany passed a special extension to the design patent law for protecting typeface designs. This also permits typefaces to be registered as designs.
The names of particular fonts may be protected by a trademark. This is the weakest form of protection because only the font name itself is being protected. For example, the letters that make up the trademarked font Palatino can be copied but the name must be changed.
In 21 January 2016, Font Brothers filed a lawsuit against Hasbro, claiming that Hasbro used the “Generation B” font for its My Little Pony product without permission. Font Brothers claimed that Hasbro had refused to comply with their licensing request. They are also claiming substantial damages, from loss of revenue for this misuse, and requesting a jury trial to resolve this matter.
Most recently, Berthold LLC sued Target Corporation for its alleged breach of a font license agreement. Berthold LLC v. Target Corp., No. 1:17-cv-07180 (N.D. Ill.). Target recognized the distinction between a font and a typeface, and what is protectable under U.S. copyright laws.