07 July 2006

Can we use fonts in logo design?

by Mark Monlux

Question

I'm creating a logo for a small, local business that provides a service. I want to use a font for the logo...I called someone at type foundry and they said that fonts are owned by their designer and therefore can be used if purchased for anything except a logo because of trademark laws. Most commercial and free fonts have restrictions on use.

What do people usually do? I don't want to have a font created...I just want to shop for one to use!

Even if the logo is trademarked - aren't you really just claiming ownership of the composition/artwork/name of the logo - not claiming ownership of the font?

And...last question, if the small business isn't going to trademark the logo - then can any purchased or free font be used???

I hope you are able to get back to me on this - I am new to the graphic design business and would like to know how other people deal with this issue.


Answer

It is true that the USA Copyright Office does not copyright typeface design. However, that does not mean that typeface does not have some restrictions. Specifically in the Copyright Ruling of 1988 it says regarding typeface: Useful articles are not protected except to the extent the articles contain artistic features capable of existing separately and independently of the overall utilitarian shape. Variations of typographic ornamentation [or] "mere lettering" are not copyrightable. So, the question here is: does your logo contain artistic features capable of existing separately and independently of the overall utilitarian shape?

If your answer is “Yes” then you are dealing with something that has a copyright, and anything you create from it would be seen as a derivative. What to do? Some typefaces have been around for centuries and are open to fair use as their creators copyright has expired. Other typefaces are new or adaptations. Your instinct to contact the type foundry, which sold you the font, was the right one. Ask first, get permission. Most type foundries have user agreements printed with the disks they supply or posted online at their websites. All user agreements are not alike. Read through them and see if permission is already granted. If the foundry does not hold all the licensing to the typeface then they should be able to provide you with the name of the artist who created it.

Now you might be saying to yourself, “Hey, if I outline the typeface and make it a graphic, won’t I be able to call it my own?” Not so according to The TypeRight Guide to Ethical Type Design: “The data in a font is protected by law, so you are not allowed to take it to create your own font. This misconception has encouraged piracy and the illegal production of ultra-cheap font CD-ROMs by individuals and companies that profit at the expense of original designers' efforts.”

Lettering artist are underappreciated, even in comparison to illustrators and graphic artists. Just like illustrators and graphic artists they live from the licensing of their work. Negotiation over their licensing should be do the same way you negotiate with your photographer or copywriter. And as with working with any professional, you will be pleased with how easy, and affordable, it is achieving a favorable result.

Now you also might be saying, “Hey, I don’t know where this font came from.” That’s the same as saying I don’t know where this photo, illustration or logo came from. Just because you don’t know the origin doesn’t mean you can use it. And with technology it is getting easier all the time to see where the typeface came from. Look at the information file for source information. Should that fail a number of font foundry websites have OCR search engines which can help you. My personal favorite is MyFonts.com’s What the Font?! which has helped me countless times.

Okay, so the short answer is: it’s typically permissible to use typefaces in brochures, books, magazines, and other enlightening, and informative works because the typeface is being used as typeface. But specialty uses are going to require that you do a little homework. And be sure to read that user agreement which comes with your font.

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