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If I understand correctly, typefaces are not copyrightable in the US, only the digital colt files.

If I want to make a libre version of a proprietary font, can I print out a document that says something like

ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXYZabcdefghijklmnopqrstuvwxyz0123456789@#$_&-+()/*"':;!?~`|^={}%[]

then trace the glyphs with a pen, scan my traced copy, and create a new digital font file from the scan? (Ignore the fact that this will significantly degrade the quality.)

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    Your work would be a "derivative work"...
    – Ron Beyer
    Nov 10 at 13:55
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    @RonBeyer: A copyright on a font protects it by considering it as a software program that generate the outlines in a particular fashion (bezier curves made up of points and control points). If you print a sample out on paper, the physical manifestation isn't protected. AFAIK, that means you could scan it in, trace it and come up with your own series of points and curves that generate that "same" shape. It's highly unlikely the 2 would be exactly the same which means it's not a violation. Note that this process is extremely involved and time-consuming, and hardly worth it in the long run.
    – NSGod
    Nov 10 at 18:01
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    @NSGod if the manual paper retracing isn't required, could the whole process be done digitally by rasterizing then revectorizing the glyphs?
    – Someone
    Nov 10 at 21:43
  • I doubt that you can always (if often, or at all) express exactly the same vector lines with different sets of points and curves. Either you compromise the resemblance, or you end up with the original sets.
    – Greendrake
    Nov 10 at 23:08
  • @Someone: I've added an answer regarding the practicality of using that method and some issues that might arise.
    – NSGod
    Nov 11 at 20:22

2 Answers 2

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Yes, if you do not use the trademarked name.

In the U.S. the graphical shape of fonts are not protected by copyright. See 37 CRF section 202.1 Typefaces are specifically excluded. Excluded are

under (a) "mere variations of typographic ornamentation,"

and (e) "Typeface as typeface."

The computer code that a font/typeface program uses to produce the shapes can be copyright. Importantly, fonts are protected by their trademarked names.

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  • Thank you! Would something like "My Font, a re-creation of Times New Roman" (if Times New Roman was the font used) be allowed as nominative fair use?
    – Someone
    Nov 11 at 3:15
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    The quality of answer this site desperately needs! @Someone you should accept an answer that single handedly provides cited law on point to your question, but at the bare minimum up vote it. If you have follow up questions, you can submit them, but don’t withhold the well-deserved acceptance and upvote to compel comment answering.
    – kisspuska
    Nov 11 at 4:56
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    Do you think "Someone Cola - a recreation of Coke" would fly? I do not think so. Regarding names for liberated fonts - apparently a company did something like this but used names that had the same first three letters as the "real" font names and got slapped down by the courts as being intended to cause confusion between their fonts and the trademarked fonts. Nov 11 at 20:55
  • What if the names are parodical, such as "Tim's New Roman", or "Ca-libre-i"?
    – kaya3
    Nov 12 at 2:42
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    @kaya3 - notice that Apple's Helvetica look-alike is called Geneva, not Macvetica. Nov 12 at 4:42
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To add to George's legal answer, I'll discuss the practicality of using this method to create a legal "copy" of the font.

Tracing by hand isn't required, but at some point I would think the vector outlines would need to be rasterized (at high resolution mind you) to be legal. Yes, there are programs that could auto-trace the outlines for you but they're far from perfect. Proper well-designed fonts have outlines that usually have points at extrema to be more efficiently rasterized. A generic vector trace program may not generate curves that meet those requirements. However, font creation software usually offers tools to optimize curves in that manner.

That said, fonts are more than just outlines. Each glyph in a font has a bounding box within which the outlines sit. For example, the letter H may have an outline width of 500 units but a bounding box width of 600 units with, say, 45 units of padding on the left side and 55 units on the right side. Each letter is different, so you'd need to print each letter out with a bounding box as well as the x-height, capital heightline, baseline, ascender lines, descender lines, etc. Flat letters like L, H, I, etc. will have a shorter height than round letters like C, O, Q etc. This is called overshoot.

Once you have the glyphs placed in their proper bounding box, with the right amount of spacing on both the left and right side, if you have a monospaced font, you're done (save hinting, mentioned below). If, however, you have a proportional (variable glyph-width font) like Helvetica, Arial, etc., your fun has just started. That's because letters like A and V need less spacing between them because they naturally fit together: AV as opposed to something like AH. Similarly, the o in the word 'To' needs less space on the left because it naturally can be tucked underneath the T. These slight adjustments are called kerning, and fonts will have a set of kern pairs for all the glyphs that need adjustment. There can be hundreds to thousands of kern pairs in a font. These values are saved in the font and available to see if you open the font in font creation software. However, there is no easy way to measure this (like you could for where the glyph sits in its bounding box) that I know of. So, is it legal to look at the font you're "copying", see that 'AV' needs a kerning value of -60 units and plop that into your new font? I don't know, but that would seem like copying to me, which could be a violation. You could do it by eye but that takes skill and lots of time. I've created a couple fonts for personal use and it can be a daunting task. Granted, I'm a perfectionist, so it's possible that what's "unacceptable" to me might be more than acceptable to someone else.

Fonts also have instructions called hinting which help make them more legible at low screen resolutions. This mostly affects only how the fonts look on the screen; they'll print out just fine. While hinting was very important in the days of CRTs and 72dpi screens, it's becoming less and less important as the resolution of screens gets higher and higher. As far as I know, at least for macOS, hinting is no longer used for screen layout of fonts. I'm not sure about Windows or other OSs.

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    I'm actually thinking of doing this with Comic Sans. People who would use Comic Sans likely won't mind some bad kerning.
    – Someone
    Nov 11 at 20:39
  • @Someone: Actually, Comic Sans doesn't have any kern pairs. That means assuring that the left and right sidebearing distances are correct will be extremely important.
    – NSGod
    Nov 12 at 16:05

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