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I am thinking about writing a book that has chess diagrams in it. For the fonts I am using the "Chess Merida" font, which is the "default" chess font used in almost all chess books. I want to make sure I'm not infringing on any copyright by doing so, and I have no experience in copyright laws so I'm asking here.

Basically there will be multiple chess diagrams in the book, an example is given below.

enter image description here

There is really no simpler way of drawing a chess diagram.

On the other hand, I have seen several websites using this format, but then prohibiting commercial use of the diagrams. For instance, this chess diagram editor allows one to edit the exact same kind of diagrams as my example, yet the website says

"... is free for non-commercial amateur use only."

So that made me wonder about copyright laws relating to chess diagrams. Obviously, I don't want to get into trouble by publishing copyrighted diagram types. Moreover, I'm not sure whether there are any royalties to pay to someone (who?) for the use of the Merida chess font.

So can I use such diagrams in my book without getting into trouble?


EDIT: if it is not free for commercial use, does this mean that all chess book authors pay royalties to chess font editors?

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  • What is your jurisdiction? Copyright law varies by country.
    – Andrew
    Jun 24, 2020 at 18:42

1 Answer 1

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The Merida Font

As noted by Tardigrade, the Merida chess font is available from https://github.com/vasiliyaltunin/chess-merida-font. However this is a derived work which incorporates a much older file containing the actual glyphs in TTF format.

Edit: If you google for "Armando Hernandez Marroquin" you will find a lot of font download sites offering several chess fonts by Marroquin. I've sampled a couple of the README files from these fonts, both of which contained the same freeware statement quoted below.

The source/README_D.TXT file referenced from the front page seems to be by the original lead author Marroquin speaking on behalf of the other authors, and says:

The font is freeware, I hope it is useful for the chess buddies. If you want to repay us, you can send us some other fonts for creating chess diagrams (we are collecting them).

As far as I can see the TTF font file by Marroquin et al has been incorporated directly into this repository, so if you were to use that alone then the original "freeware" grant would apply. The Mozilla Public License only restricts the other works in the repository (contrary to what the repository README claims). TTF is a compiled form of the font, so that would explain the use of the term "freeware": this is not open source.

It is true that "freeware" is not a formal license. The usual definition is "software made available free of charge". The following note about "If you want to repay us" would also seem to indicate an intent to make it available to all without requiring a fee.

The Marroquin README also says

The figures of this font follow the more traditional style of the figures found in many publications with chess diagrams. I took them from a book with more than 5,000 chess problems.

This means that Marroquin et al probably cannot claim any IPR in the visual appearance of the font glyphs. It is possible that some expressive content might be found in the exact proportions of the various glyphs, but to the extent that they merely copied traditional figures into a computer there was no creativity and hence no copyright.

However Marroquin et al could claim copyright in the resulting TTF file, and any other format derived from it which describes the font in terms of vector shapes. The appearance of a piece does not dictate any single representation in geometric form in a font glyph, so the decisions made by Marroquin et al were creative. The only exception would be if the diagrams were represented using bitmaps, as that would merely be a representation of the appearance and not include Marroquin's creative work.

This matters because it affects electronic and paper publication differently:

  • If your book is published in paper form then Marroquin et al cannot claim copyright to the visual appearance shown on the page.

  • If your book is published electronically in a form that embeds the TTF file or some similar format derived from it then Marroquin's copyright would apply to that file.

  • If your e-book only contains bitmap versions of the chess piece glyphs then you are in the clear for the same reason as the paper version.

Whether a publisher's legal department would consider this sufficient is another matter.

Chess Diagram Editors

The Apronos.com website you reference says that it is free for non-commercial amateur use only. However this is a restriction on the use of the website itself; if you use it to create diagrams which you subsequently publish then the website owner has no rights to your work, only to compensation for violating his terms of service (such as they are), and to an injunction stopping you from doing it again.

If the website offered a commercial paid service then they could claim the damage as being the amount you avoided paying. Without such an alternative they could only claim the amount that you cost them by using the service, which is going to be trivial.

If you want to be absolutely safe you can always email the website owner and ask if you can have permission in return for a contribution to running costs.

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  • Wouldn't the glyphs be typefaces and not fonts, thus, use of the glyphs is not protected in the US? A typeface is the collection of glyphs, the font is the implementation of the typeface. The fonts, as the implementation of the typeface, is considered a "program" by the US Copyright Office and protected whether or not the result is copyrightable. The letter-forms themselves, e.g. typefaces, are not copyrightable. "The term "typeface"' is: intended to encompass typefonts; letterforms, and the, like. Whether generated by a computer or not." 57 FR 6202, 37 CFR 202.1.
    – Andrew
    Jun 24, 2020 at 18:42
  • Oh also, maybe this fits in somewhere. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Perris_v._Hexamer
    – Andrew
    Jun 25, 2020 at 16:18
  • By "glyph" I meant the individual "characters" (e.g. "black rook"). In TTF a glyph is represented as a set of vectors while in a bitmap format it is just the visual appearance. So I think your comment agrees with me. Sorry if I'm using the word in a non-standard way. Jun 30, 2020 at 7:35
  • Follow up comment: is the act of taking a screenshot of the chessboard and including it in a commercial product, copyright violation in itself?
    – Dakter
    Nov 2, 2021 at 19:16
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    @Dakter I think that needs to be a question. Short answer: its complicated. Nov 2, 2021 at 21:57

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