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The Legality of Using Fonts in Your Work
Date 4/29/2009    Tags Game Dev, Advise    (0)

Most of the fonts in my game are common place fonts like Verdana that I wouldn't expect to be a problem to include in a commercially sold work. But the heading for my title and a select few screens use a fancier font that isn't so common place. This lead me to the question, "Can I legally use that font in my game?"

After doing some searching and asking online, I came to discover that the whole issue is a big messy gray area. I'm not a lawyer or judge or even a regular viewer of Law and Order, so take my advice with a grain of salt (as you should everything you read online).

When you purchase/download a font, it will ideally come with a license agreement (or there will be one tucked away on the website you got the font from). This will tell you what the font seller legally thinks they can allow you to do with the font. If you want to be really, really safe and sleep soundly at night, then follow this agreement to the letter. Often you will need to purchase special "commercial" grade fonts that will allow for using the font in your works for commercial sale, as many of general font license agreements allow for only personal use.

This font license agreement though may not be as inclusive as its owner claims...

Norman Walsh says:
The U.S. Copyright Office holds that a bitmapped font is nothing more than a computerized representation of a typeface, and as such is not copyrightable:

"The [September 29, 1988] Policy Decision [published at 53 FR 38110] based on the [October 10,] 1986 Notice of Inquiry [published at 51 FR 36410] reiterated a number of previous registration decisions made by the [Copyright] Office. First, under existing law, typeface as such is not registerable. The Policy Decision then went on to state the Office's position that 'data that merely represents an electronic depiction of a particular typeface or individual letterform' [that is, a bitmapped font] is also not registerable." 57 FR 6201.
If you believe this rather than the license agreement from font companies that want you to pay them to use their materials, it means that if you convert your font to an image (as opposed to distributing the actual font file), then you're safe. This is what I'm doing in my game and what most people who wish to use a font in their commercial product will be doing. Even if this is true, it still only covers you in the United States. Each country is going to have its own copyright laws that detail how this issue is handled.

You may have noticed that this legal statement directly contradicts the licensing agreement you get from the font company. One claims this is lawful behavior, one claims it is not. Even if the legal statement is correct (and if this statement is truly in law, then it is), it may be worth the peace of mind (and future legal costs) to simply buy the license to the font.

I should also mention that there are several websites that also offer royalty free fonts that you can use for anything. And it's always possible (though a lot of work) to create your own (and then sucker others into buying it).

And if you're really concerned, talk to an actual lawyer. I'm a programmer after all, why would you take legal advice from me?

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