If a person downloads a font illegally, but doesn't use it for commercial purposes, what are the legal and ethical implications of their usage?

  • Could the font be ethically (and legally) used for personal documents that aren't distributed?
  • Could it be used in the writing of a document that is later distributed, but in a different legally-attained font?
  • Could it be used in internally distributed memos?
  • Could it be used in non-advertising documents distributed under public domain (i.e. with no restrictions on copying and redistribution)?

I ask because many fonts are extremely expensive to purchase for someone of limited financial means, and because I have no intention of commercially distributing any media or documents in an illegally downloaded font.

  • What country are you asking for? – DPenner1 Oct 10 '16 at 13:26

It turns out that there is no difference between the ethical answer and the legal answer, in this case. The law recognizes the property right which a person has when they create a thing, such as a font, and that right is encoded in the law of copyright. The relevant US federal code is contained in Title 17, which you can read (essentially identical laws exist in virtually or perhaps actually all countries). The important thing to understand is that there is not a distinction between "privately" trespassing on a person's property and "publicly" trespassing on a person's property. The violation of the owner's property rights comes from taking the material without consent.

There is a legally-recognized exception to the owner's rights, in the form of "fair use", which is widely misunderstood to mean "if it's not for profit, the property owner has no legal protection". Simply taking and using someone else's IP non-commercially is not "fair use".

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  • Fonts are also commonly protected by design patents, which can create other causes of action outside copyright, but the result is the same. Damages in a design patent case can be different than a copyright case, but when the use is non-commercial, the copyright statutory damages are likely to be higher. (Comment because the answer is better than this comment, but I wanted to point out the additional potential for patent protection). – David Oct 10 '16 at 23:52

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