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I plan on writing a fantasy novel, and there is a chance the novel will contain custom fonts for several languages I have created. I am not currently able to create these fonts myself, and would much rather have a professional do them. However, I am worried about copyright.

My limited understanding of copyright suggests that the copyright belongs to whoever made the product (in this case the font). If I hire someone to create a custom font for me, I want to be sure that I have total ownership of that font, and can both use it however I wish, and restrict its use by other parties. How do I ensure that?

I am also curious if anything changes if no money changes hands. If someone makes these fonts for me for free, does that change anything?

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Do the languages in your novel use glyphs which are unique to those languages? An example of a glyph is "R", sometimes seen reversed in Cryllic derived languages such as Ukranian. (In fact Ukraine makes a point to only use in their license plates the 12 or so glyphs common to Roman.)

The reason I ask is that the context of the languages is your novels, which are copyright. As such so should be the languages. A person would have no good purpose to use the fonts except to use languages on which you hold copyright. There being no other useful use for the fonts, it makes it impossible for someone else to claim you violated their copyright on fonts of glyphs only usable in your language.

That would be a byzantine claim indeed: ”I work for Linotype, fell in love with the novels, created a font for his unique language, we at Linotype chose to market this font, and OP stole the font and used it in his novels, the ones we fell in love with". Riiight.

The thing to watch out for, however, is the design language of the fonts. Now in the USA it doesn't matter: you can literally hand trace the Frutiger font and use it with impunity, bold as Jove, because hand tracing makes it a new font (digital representation of the face). Fonts are copyrightable, faces are not in the US. Faces are copyrightable in EU: if Frutiger did not support Pali, and you made what was obviously Pali Frutiger, then indeed the font foundry would have a case against you. So you need to watch that your font designer didn't just ripoff someone else's "design language", if you plan to sell in the EU or if the US ever harmonizes its law to EU standard.

  • You are claiming that it is not in violation of someone's copyright (in thr US) if you redraw their font? That sounds unlikely. Do you have a reference for that? – Matt Nov 6 '17 at 2:51
  • @Matt that is exactly what I'm claiming. I get where it is new to you and seems like a bold claim warranting bold proof, but it is widely known among fontographers. Here crowdspring.com/blog/font-law-licensing and generally google.com/… – Harper Nov 6 '17 at 4:00
  • Ahh, I remember that now, I was thrown off by your claim that redrawing the font "makes it a new thing" which isn't true, its the same design. It is just that the typeface design can't be copyrighted. – Matt Nov 6 '17 at 4:18
  • @Matt I can fix that... – Harper Nov 6 '17 at 4:25
  • My glyphs are for the most part unique. However, some of them are essentially the same as glyphs in the English language. One language in particular has glyphs basically identical to a lower case a, c, v, and u. The alphabet is of course not based off of English, and it also contains glyphs I at least have seen nowhere else. Is this a problem? – Thomas Myron Nov 6 '17 at 5:07
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The simplest way to do this is via the contract you have with the programmer, where you state that all copyright arising from this project is assigned to you. There does exist a "work for hire" doctrine, but that doesn't mean "anything you pay to get created". The problem (in part) is that a program is not included in the list of things that are works for hire: "literary works" are not included, and software is considered legally a "literary work".

If there is no money involved, that could be a problem for the customer. Ordinarily, there would be a contract between Customer and Programmer where Programmer creates the font and assigns copyright to Customer (one way of doing it), and in exchange, Customer pays Programmer – this is known as "consideration" (each party does something for the other, which they didn't have to do already). There does not actually have to be monetary payment, but a gift of a font is not a contract, and isn't enforceable in court in the same way. Whereas is the contract states that each party gets something of value, then you would have a contract (assuming you didn't foul up somewhere else).

One matter that you would want to discuss with the programmer / artist is exactly how much of the work product you want to prohibit him from using in the future. For example, the computer file doesn't contain ink drawings, but such drawings are likely to be necessary in creating the computer file. It may be, then, that your interest is in purchasing a TTF file but not precursor drawings, scans, etc. Or maybe you want everything. Carefully defining the objecting being purchased is a good idea: do not just say "font" and think that that is unambiguous.

Since copyright transfer does not happen (in the desired way) automatically by law, under 17 USC 204(A),

A transfer of copyright ownership, other than by operation of law, is not valid unless an instrument of conveyance, or a note or memorandum of the transfer, is in writing and signed by the owner of the rights conveyed or such owner’s duly authorized agent.

Hence something in writing, with a signature, is required to effect complete transfer of the programmer's copyright. This can be done electronically, so it doesn't need to be ink-on-paper.

  • If he just agrees to the terms I put out in an email, does that work as a contract? Or do I need his physical signature? – Thomas Myron Nov 6 '17 at 16:06
  • Assuming that he agrees to agreeing to the terms in an email, then...yeah? You can have an agreement e-signed anyway, if you want. There are services for that. – Stackstuck Nov 7 '17 at 5:30

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