Cinema Law: Do I Need Permission to Use Specific Fonts in My Film?

Q: As a moviemaker, do you have to get permission to use fonts for the credits?

Let’s say a popular font like Arial, Trebuchet or Verdana? Or what about a more specialized font? Does public domain work with regards to fonts? If so, how would you know if a font is in the public domain?

A: In the United States, the answers to your questions are that you do not need to get permission to use a popular typeface in your credits, and you probably do not need permission for specialized ones either—for specialized typefaces, I do have some reservations, so see my discussion below. Most copyright experts agree that typefaces are simply not protectable under the U.S. copyright laws.

Now, you might wonder why I am using the term “typeface” and not “font.” Although the two terms are often used interchangeably, there is an important difference between the two. And it is because of this difference that you have probably heard about disputes regarding “copyrighted fonts.” A “typeface” is a set of characters, i.e., letters, numerals, punctuation marks and the like, with a particularized style. It is what you see on the screen when you write in a word processor or what you see on paper after you print out what you have written. A “font” is the medium that contains a typeface—so on a typewriter the set of metal heads with characters on them is the font and in a word processing program the computer code that executes instructions to create the look of the characters is the font.

The “font” is entitled to copyright protection in that you could not copy the computer code that executes instructions to create a particular typeface in Microsoft Word and then turn around and use a copy of that code in your own program. It is this type of copying of fonts that has led to copyright disputes between software publishers.

The only caveat I would add here is that, with respect to specialized fonts and typefaces, the creator of the font and typeface may subject you to a contract before granting you access to the font. For example, if you download a specialized font from a Website, the creator may have you agree to not use the typeface contained within the font in certain ways before you download it. For example, the Website may ask you to check a box saying you agree to certain conditions before letting you download a font. With everything else, before you agree to anything (including by dowloading something), be sure to read what you have agreed to first.

So the bottom line is that you shouldn’t worry too much about getting permission to use particular typefaces in the credits to your movies. Just make sure that you spell everyone’s name correctly. MM

Jonathan Steinsapir is an Associate at Kinsella Weitzman Iser Kump & Aldisert, a high-profile, L.A.-based entertainment litigation firm, whose practice encompasses a wide range of commercial litigation matters, with particular emphasis on intellectual property disputes. In patent cases, he has successfully represented patentees and accused infringers in federal courts throughout the country involving diverse and complex technology, including inkjet printing, high-speed computer peripheral connections, electronic musical instruments and CMOS sensors. Steinsapir has also successfully represented clients in copyright cases throughout the entertainment industry, including pay television providers, leading producers of reality television and video game publishers. Also in the entertainment field, he has extensive experience with contract cases, including licensing and output agreements and “idea submission” claims. Steinsapir has also litigated several trademark and trade dress cases, and he has represented both employees and employers in trade secret and non-compete cases.

The answers to legal questions provided by the lawyers of Kinsella Weitzman Iser Kump & Aldisert, LLP (“KWIKA”) are for general education and information purposes only, and are not legal advice or legal opinions. The information provided in the articles is not intended to create a lawyer-client relationship between KWIKA and you. The opinions expressed in the postings are the opinions of the authors and do not reflect the opinions of KWIKA, its employees or agents.

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