LEGAL FONT PROTECTION: GERMANY TAKES THE LEAD

08 November 2006
Visual Arts Trends staff report
Visual Arts Trends staff report

Typography remains the one industry that does not enjoy the benefits of copyright protection. However, European countries are beginning to make progress in this area, spearheaded by the efforts of Germany s Linotype.

Recently, FontShop International has won a landmark legal case in the German courts, granting full copyright protection to fonts. This is excellent news, even if somewhat localized it seems that Europe remains ahead of the United States when it comes to font protection.

For instance, Germany s recent law, enacted in 1981 and called Schriftzeichengesetz, specifically protects typeface design. This protection is available to non-German designers and firms, who frequently take advantage of it. However, according to this law, common fonts are not subject to copyright protection; rather, the law affords protection by filing a special registered design with the German Patent Office. At this time, it is unclear if FontShop s victory stands to have any effect on German copyright law.

According to the Bad Homburg, Germany-based Linotype Library GmbH, Germany still has a way to go. The company points out that computer stores, mail-order, and online retailers continue to sell CD collections containing famous classic fonts at bargain-basement prices, without paying any royalties to the font designers or the companies that digitized them and brought them to market. For years, the bootleggers and plagiarists have been trying to put forth the generic name legal argument, suggesting that the names of famous fonts, such as Helvetica, Univers, and Palatino should be open for use to everyone (this is similar to the US public domain issue). However, the Regional and Regional Appeals Courts of Frankfurt have finally ruled against this, issuing a decision that names such as these (and about a dozen others) have brand name protection and can only be used by the license holder and its licensees.

The United Kingdom and France are two other countries that bear mentioning in this context. British type designers have been enjoying copyright protection for several years. France allows typeface registration under a 19th century industrial design protection law. In addition, France has ratified an international treaty for protection of typefaces. This 1973 Vienna treaty becomes international law when four nations ratify it. So far, only France and West Germany have done so; thus, type designs must be protected separately in each country. And even when (and if) the treaty does become law, it will take effect only in the countries that have ratified it.

Much credit for the fact that Europe, specifically Germany, has gained significant ground in this area must go to the aforementioned Linotype. The company has and continues to pour significant resources into fighting font piracy and lobbying for greater protection of fonts. Most recently (spring 2000), Linotype s Anti-Piracy Initiative, supported by the Business Software Alliance (BSA), has moved the Regional Court of Cologne to rule that fonts integrated into computer programs are subject to copyright protection, according to the company s own press release. The BSA is currently conducting campaigns in four urban regions of Germany, with a goal of punishing font pirates and containing the spread of this phenomenon.

Regrettably, the US situation remains the same, despite the ongoing lobbying efforts by the country s typographic community. The only significant step of recent years has been the fact that US courts have begun to treat computer programs used to digitize fonts as intellectual property of the companies that develop them. But the question still remains: How can a country that touts itself for having the best, most fair legal system in the world be so far behind when it comes to typography? Granted, things aren t peachy globally, but The States are most certainly not at the top of their game.



About this article
The above article is reprinted from Visual Arts Trends, with permission. 2001, Visual Arts Trends.

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