Sunday Mailbag- Fonts?

August 10th, 2014 | Posted in Mailbag

Q: How do you approach copyright on fonts when it comes to your different projects? It’s tempting to just use whatever font looks best but quite a bit of them have copyright restrictions on commercial use. Or they are donate to author. I am guessing you hand letter some but curious how you approach font usage in your artwork when it comes to copyright restrictions.

A: I have to admit I am very lax when it come to the use of a font in an illustration I am doing. Often I hand letter something, but I will usually base that on a font I have seen or am using as a reference. Most of the fonts I use in illustrations are from Comicraft or another free, open use font resource. I seldom really look to be sure though, and it’s possible the use of some of these fonts could involve copyright permission or payment.

I am not sure how the legal use of a font within the context of an illustration works with respect to copyright. It might fall under the same sort of fair use exemption as does the use of a sampling of another person’s music in a hip-hop/rap song. Fair use permits the use of elements of a copyrighted work as long and the resulting work is completely original and new. Certainly, that applies to the illustrations I do where I might use an actual font as an element of the piece. Interesting question, though. I need to look into it. Thanks!

Thanks to Sean Platt¬¨‚Ć for the question. If you have a question you want answered for the mailbag about cartooning, illustration, MAD Magazine, caricature or similar, e-mail me and I’ll try and answer it here!


  1. Hmm... says:

    Not a lawyer: It’s not a fair-use thing. It really depends on the country, but in the US at least, your hand lettering is what keeping you safe from lawsuits, i.e. as long as you don’t use the software (“font”) that produces the (unprotected) typeface, you are not infringing anything*.

    * Also, don’t use the font’s name (trademarks) and make sure it’s not a protected design (which usually isn’t).

    And what if you embed a font (copy of a software) in a document (Word, Photoshop, whatever) somehow? Than you are in a pickle. Use properly licensed fonts, or hand letter typefaces.

  2. pfdavis says:

    As Hmm said, in the US, the appearance of a font is not protected at all. That’s why so many foundries produce identical or nearly identical fonts, but with different names. The name can be trademarked, and the actual code for a digital font can be copyright protected, but the appearance? Nope.
    Also, typically if you’re using a free font, or one that you’ve licensed, you can use it in anything … illustrations, publications, etc.


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