IP Protection of Typeface Logos

A current trend in design and marketing are simplified corporate logos or typeface logos.  Take Hull Barrett’s logo as an example:

Hull Barrett

The words “Hull Barrett Attorneys” in the logo are a typeface and not an artistic element like the peach in the State of Georgia’s logo.  Due to this trend, companies often inquire about protecting intellectual property in font or typeface logos.

The Background of Using Font and Typeface Logos

Typefaces and fonts are often used to create logos, designs, and graphics.  Such designs are protectable as a form of artistic and intellectual property. There is much confusion, however, regarding typefaces and fonts—particularly who has the rights to use them.  Many people are not informed of the law governing the use of typefaces and fonts. Not all typefaces or fonts may be used freely without license to do so.  Those interested in intellectual property rights in fonts and typefaces include type designers, lettering artists, punch-cutters, calligraphers, software developers, as well as persons or entities interested in trademark protection of names and logos written in certain typefaces.

What is the Difference Between a Font and a Typeface?

The terms “font” and “typeface” are often used interchangeably.  While the colloquial definitions are nearly identical, the difference between the definitions in a legal sense is significant. Put plainly, a typeface refers to the way that a set of characters (sometimes called “glyphs”) appears on paper or a computer screen.  Some examples of typefaces are Arial®, Times New Roman®, Helvetica®, and Lucida®.  A font, however, is a computer program or software that instructs a printer or computer display the manner in which a glyph or character is intended to be shown. Consequently, what people generally refer to as a “font” in conversation is actually a “typeface.”

Are Fonts and Typefaces Protected by Federal Copyright Law?

Congress has determined that “typefaces as typefaces” are not protectable under United States copyright law.[1]  Federal courts, on the other hand, have found that font software programs are protectable under federal copyright law because they are original works of authorship due to the creativity and artistry involved in their creation.[2]  Therefore, persons and entities that create typefaces should be aware that they do not have any copyright in such typefaces. But, those that create font software should consult an attorney in order to register and protect from infringers the copyrights that they have in font software.

Are Fonts and Typefaces Protected by Federal Trademark Law?

While copyright law deals with how a typeface or font is written, United States trademark law can protects the name of the typeface or font.  Some examples of typefaces which have been registered with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (“USPTO”) include Times New Roman®, Helvetica®, and Lucida®, while some examples of font software include Wingdings® and Helvetica®.  The owners of these trademarks may license the trademarks to software programs that use the typefaces.  However, this presents the problem that infringers need only to change the name of the typeface or font when using them to skirt the protections of trademark law.

Trademarks can be registered in a stylized design or typeface, or in block lettering.  If a trademark is registered in block lettering, its owner enjoys trademark protection regardless of the typeface in which the mark is written.  The waters get muddied when you consider that typefaces are commonly used as part of a logo or design. For example, the iconic Coca-Cola® logo mark, which has been registered numerous times, is written with specific cursive characters.  As mentioned before, the typeface itself is not subject to copyright protection in the United States, but the logo design in its entirety is protected as by United States trademark law.  Thus, trademark law can protect the design of a typeface so far as its use in a design, but not the typeface itself.

Typefaces themselves are not protectable under United States copyright or trademark law.  However, the names of the typefaces are protectable by trademark law, and the font software used to produce the typefaces is protectable under copyright law.  Those that create typefaces and font software, or design trademark logos should consult an attorney to help protect their intellectual property rights.

Typeface Logos

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[1]              37 C.F.R. § 202.1(e).

[2]              Adobe Sys. v. Southern Software, Inc., 1998 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 1941, 45 U.S.P.Q.2D 1827 (N.D. Cal. Feb. 2, 1998).

Image Credit: Pixelbliss/shutterstock.com

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