Legal considerations for fonts

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A page of the Fonts Special Interest Group

General Fedora guidelines apply to font licenses too
Nevertheless fonts are not software, or are a very specialized form of software, and font packagers or reviewers should be familiar with font legal specificities.


[edit] International font laws

Copyright, trademark and patent laws concerning fonts vary greatly from country to country. In some countries font data is copyrightable but font designs aren't. In other countries font designs are copyrightable, but font data not. Because Fedora is an international project, fonts distributed with Fedora need to respect a wider set of legal protections than those of any one country.

The following attempts to briefly summarize the situation for the use of people interested in getting fonts included into Fedora.

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The author is not a lawyer
Nothing below should be taken as a legal opinion. Opinions vary wildly as to what forms of IP protection apply to fonts. Opinions vary even more wildly as to what forms of IP protection should apply to fonts.

Various forms of protection exist for fonts:

  • Font names can be trademarked throughout most of the world. While a few names, such as Courier are in the public domain, most of the familiar font names such as Arial or Helvetica are the trademarks of one company or another.
  • The computerized data making up the font is subject to copyright in the United States and some other countries. This protection continues through automated conversion to a different format. (The design of text fonts itself is not subject to copyright in the US. In the US, if the design of a font is not otherwise protected, it's legal to print out a large image of the font then retrace it. However, proving that the new outlines were not generated from the computerized original data may be difficult.)
  • Type designs themselves have protections in some countries. In the UK, font designs have been subject to copyright since 1989. France and Germany are other countries with protection for typeface designs.
  • In the US "design patents" can be granted for fonts, though this is relatively rare. (About 150 design patents for fonts have been granted in total by the USPTO.) A design patent lasts 14 years from date of grant. Originality of the design is required.
  • Font designs can be protected by "design registration" in some countries. The terms of this vary between countries. In the UK, for example, a design registration can be extended in 5 year increments up to 25 years.

OwenTaylor, 2004

[edit] On font sources

[edit] Generalities

Modern font formats are pretty complex and complete, and can be modified directly by editors like fontforge. For this reason many font people affirm there is no need to require separate “sources”. There is little to no information loss when an OpenType file is generated from other intermediary format.

The OFL, in particular, considers that just giving authorisation to others to modify and redistribute the generated font file is sufficient, and you do not need to publish the specific format your font editor uses[1].

Likewise, when a font author edits the TTF/OTF/TTC… font files directly in his favorite font editor, those files are clearly the canonical “sources” the (L)GPL intended to be relayed, and they should be treated the same way as interpreted script files: as both “source” and “binary”.

However it is also not uncommon to have authors that edit their fonts in some other format, and convert it to TTF/OTF/TTC… at the last creation stage[2]. Those authors would clearly consider having to restart from the TTF/OTF/TTC… files a setback, or at least a loss of convenience. In that case TTC/OTF/TTF… files are clearly not the canonical “sources” in the (L)GPL sense.

[edit] What it means in Fedora

Since Fedora cares about freedom, and wants to give itself and downstreams the means to modify the fonts it ships should the need arise, we'd like you as packager to make the effort to locate the canonical sources of a font project and generate your font files from them in the %build stage. This even if the particular free/open license of the font you package does not make it an absolute licensing requirement.

In particular the fontforge sfd format is text-based and makes it possible to use a normal patch/vcs-based FLOSS workflow, so it is very desirable to use canonical sources in that format whenever upstream provides them.

Nevertheless if there is no evidence the font author works from some other “sources”, or didn't publish them, and didn't reply or refused to do it when contacted by mail, there is little you can do. Even if the font project is licensed under the (L)GPL you do not have access to separate “sources”. Fedora can not be sued for not passing on something the original author didn't provide. In that case package the TTF/OTF/TTC… files directly.

Similarly, if the actual source files are made available, but are in some other font editor format free tools like fontforge can not edit, you can't really build from them. In that case package the sources in the srpm but ship the generated files upstream provided in the rpm.

Lastly, font sources in metatype format can be non-trivial to build, and seem to require specific build scripts tuned to the TEX variant the distro ships. Building any font from metatype will probably require help from TEX specialists.

[edit] Other rules to remember

Most often, a font creator won't be a software developer, but someone with an artist background. He won't select his license from the pool of software licenses you're familiar with, but choose a text reflecting his priorities.

[edit] Font licenses try to protect the font design

Font designers feel their creation is a very personal work of art, and they will often forbid modification (or only allow extension of the font without changing its original core). It has been argued in the past since fonts are content, or art, we needn't apply our strict freedom checks to them.

Fonts however are not just art. They're functional art. The core purpose of a font is to permit representing text humans can read, in a changing technical context[3]. Like any other technical component of Fedora, fonts are subject to bug-fixing, enhancement, adaptation to new technical rules.

Nowadays, we require font licenses to be as permissive as software licenses, and in particular to allow modification.

A license that requires using another font name if the font is modified, however, is acceptable and can be used to accommodate font designer feelings.

The Vera compromise
Name changing is the compromise the GNOME Foundation used when it convinced Bitstream to release Vera. Bitstream Vera licensing is generally considered a success, even if the renaming requirement proved a definite cost: when Bitstream stopped updating Vera everyone forked it under a different name, and it took years for the forks to consolidate under a single project.

Please note that some people feel the OFL requires a name change if the fonts are built from source. When in doubt, ask upstream how it interprets its chosen license.

[edit] Font licenses often forbid standalone distribution

Because fonts are OS-agnostic, do not weight a lot, are highly desirable by most computer users, fonts have been an early victim of widespread illegal digital copying. While font designers may be sympathetic to FLOSS software, and turn a blind eye to home copiers, they absolutely loathe the freeloaders that collect illegally huge numbers of fonts and sell them by the CD/DVD.

When a font designer liberates a font he will usually try to forbid its inclusion in such a collection. If the license is well written it will not be a problem for Fedora — we distribute fonts in packages, in conjunction with lots of other non-font elements.

[edit] Good font licenses allow embedding

Because everyone does not have the same fonts installed on his system, common digital document formats like PDF allow embedding fonts. If the license of those fonts is a vanilla GPL, the legal status of such a document is subject to interpretation. While Fedora will not reject GPLed fonts, vanilla GPL is not a good font license.

For this reason the FSF has published an embedding exception text , but many font projects forget to add it to their licensing[4].

[edit] Font licenses can be a mess

Font designers will tend to use one-of-a-kind licenses with badly understood legal effects. This license proliferation will in turn make the mix and matching, deriving and merging FLOSS projects (including font projects) are so fond of mightily hard.

When you're convincing a designer or a foundry to liberate a font, please choose our preferred license . It's been carefully worded to protect the interests of everyone, and many people have reviewed it.

[edit] The data of a font must be original

It is never appropriate to start with data from a proprietary font and incorporate it into your own font, no matter what conversion process is in-between. An obvious exception to this is if the license of the original allows modifications. For example, the URW fonts included with Fedora are licensed under the GPL and data from them can be used in other GPL fonts. If you copy data from another font, you must also include the original copyright notice and license in your font.

Careless font hobbyists will often copy and adapt glyphs from existing "free" fonts, without checking their license is actually compatible, or the source they've taken their "free" font from is legitimate[5]. When importing a font in Fedora, the packager & reviewer must make sure (via data analysis or by checking twice with the font designer) the font has not been tainted in such a way.

[edit] Beware of font clones

Along with legal issues, there are also ethical issues. A new type design with genuine innovation is a major creative work. Even if is legal to create an exact curve-by-curve clone of Palatino or Comic Sans, is it really appropriate to do so? Lettering has been done for thousands of years, printing for hundreds of years. If you don't have the skill to come with a new type design on your own, that's no reason to rip off last year's hot font.

Restrict yourself to cloning nice old fonts, from old paper samples.

To identify possible clones you can use a service such as WhatTheFont.

[edit] Approved font licenses

These are the Font Licenses that we're aware of. If your license is not in this list, and you'd like to know if it is appropriate for Fedora, please email the details to (note that this list is moderated, only members may directly post).

The GPL is also a valid though not ideal license for fonts. Refer to the Software Licensing table for the correct short name identifiers.

[edit] Preferred License

Early attempts to liberate fonts showed font designers didn't like FLOSS licenses, and that besides FLOSS licenses didn't apply so well to fonts. Existing font licenses were overly restrictive and free at best in the monetary sense. The liberation of Bitstream Vera by the GNOME Foundation proved compromise was possible. However the Vera license itself is less than ideal and no one wants to generalize it.

Nowadays, to avoid the license proliferation mess which is just as problematic in the free/libre/open ecosystem as in the software one, the Fedora project joins other free/libre/open actors, and recommends new font projects choose the OFL, and existing projects consider relicensing.

Full Name Short Name FSF Free? Upstream URL
SIL Open Font License 1.1 OFL Yes

[edit] Other good Licenses

Here is a list of Font Licenses that are OK for Fedora. If your license is not in this list, and you'd like to know if it is appropriate for Fedora, please email the details to (note that this list is moderated, only members may directly post).

Full Name Short Name FSF Free? Upstream URL
Adobe/TUG Utopia license agreement Utopia ?
AMS Bluesky Font License AMS ?
Arphic Public License Arphic Yes
Baekmuk License Baekmuk Yes
Bitstream Vera Font License Bitstream Vera ?
Charter License Charter Yes
Creative Commons Attribution license CC-BY Yes
DoubleStroke Font License DoubleStroke Yes
ec Font License ec Yes
Elvish Font License Elvish Yes
GUST Font License LPPL Yes
Hershey Font License Hershey ?
IPA Font License IPA Yes
Liberation Font License Liberation Yes
LaTeX Project Public License LPPL Yes
Lucida Legal Notice Lucida ?
MgOpen Font License MgOpen ?
mplus Font License mplus Yes
ParaType Font License PTFL Yes
Punknova Font License Punknova Yes
STIX Fonts User License STIX Yes
Wadalab Font License Wadalab Yes
XANO Mincho Font License XANO Yes

[edit] Bad Licenses

This is a list of Font licenses which are NOT OKAY for Fedora. Nothing in Fedora should be using these licenses. They're either non-free, deprecated, or have usage/distribution restrictions.

Full Name FSF Free? Upstream URL Notes
DIP SIPA Font License NO Restrictions on modification
Larabie Fonts License NO Cannot modify
Literat Font License NO Cannot modify

[edit] Disclaimer

No usage of trademarks, either in this page or in any license "short identifiers" is intended as advertising. Any trademarks used are the property of their owners.


  1. Other font licenses express this opinion in more awkward terms like the GUST NOSOURCE license.
  2. With possibly some scripted transformations before.
  3. The consortium revises its encoding tables regularly, font formats change over time, text layouting libraries are refined and can use new font features, screen and printer capabilities change etc.
  4. The GNU project mades a similar recommendation.
  5. Remember the "free" font collections good font designers hate so much?

Fonts in Fedora
The Fonts SIG takes loving care of Fedora fonts. Please join this special interest group if you are interested in creating, improving, packaging, or just suggesting a font. Any help will be appreciated.