Revivals and copyrights

Graphirus's picture

Hello,

I have seen a lot of revivals of old typefaces taken from printed sources to the digital realm. This kind of work really interests me and I have a question in this regard: is an ethical thing to do? I mean, copying a design from a printed source and making a digital font? What do copyright says in this regard?

Thanks for clarifications

altsan's picture

I've wondered the same. If you're in North America, then legally speaking it seems to be fine... since you're only copying the design and not mathematical/programmatical font data, and font designs themselves are not protected by copyright law. (In other countries/regions you should definitely check what the IP laws there say about type designs).

Whether or not it's ethical is getting into a rather murkier area. Inasmuch as I've been able to sense any kind of general consensus amongst type designers, it seems to be that type design really ought to be copyright-able even if it isn't; and so I get the impression that there's a kind of "gentleman's understanding" (apologies to the ladies among us) that the proper thing is to behave as if they were.

For myself, at least for now I've tentatively decided to adopt the approach that a design is fair game for revival or reinterpretation if it would be out of copyright under local law (in my case, Canadian law) if it actually were copyright-able.

HVB's picture

How ethical it is also depends on what the 'printed source' is. The ethics will be perceived differently depending on whether it's a previously undigitized specimen from an 1893 foundry catalog or a printed sample of a current Linotype or Adobe digitized font. And, since font NAMES can be copyrighted, and font designs can be patented, there are also other considerations.

- Herb

oldnick's picture

That which you find hateful, do not unto any man. That is the whole of the Torah; the rest is elaboration…

—Rabbi Hillel the Elder

Nick Shinn's picture

“Do unto others…” puts copyists in a different boat than originalists.
One rule for the lion…?

oldnick's picture

Revivalists are in a different boat: we honor the past…

Nick Shinn's picture

I don’t know about that. It seems to me that many revivals try to improve upon the past, or adapt it to the present, rather than produce a facsimile.

But I shouldn’t be splitting us into for or against, as many type designers do everything from authentic revivals to original work.

oldnick's picture

many revivals try to improve upon the past, or adapt it to the present, rather than produce a facsimile

Producing facsimiles is single-cell organism stuff. OTOH, improvement and adaptation sound pretty much like Evolution to me. Overall, the concept has worked pretty well—or, at least, well enough until humans got the notion that we had a Better Idea of how the show ought to be run…

Nick Shinn's picture

Speaking of Oz Cooper (which you were in another thread) — I found the fonts that were evolved from his sans hateful, despite the fact that Dave Farey is such a nice guy. If somehow I had been Oz and seen what Dave did I would have said, why did you change that and that and that — don’t you know I made them like that for a reason?!

And it’s not really a fair evolutionary fight if the original doesn’t exist.

So I would say the first duty of a revivalist is to make sure that the designer’s work is available authentically, not just the interpretation.
When I was working on the Modern Suite, I did that for the Scotch, but not for the Figgins Sans, and I now regret that. (I had changed the /G, for instance, adding a crossbar for the benefit of today’s readers who might mistake the original for a /C.) The principle here is letting the market/typographer/user decide how to use the font, rather than assuming one knows what they want.

hrant's picture

I would say the first duty of a revivalist is to make sure that the designer’s work is available authentically

I don't see that at all.
Even mild revivalism is bad enough of itself.

hhp

HVB's picture

hhp -
I think you may be using a different definition of 'revival' than anyone else.

You're saying that if there's a previously undigitized metal/wood/film font that to create it in digital form (which is what a revival is) would be 'bad'. I certainly hope you don't really mean that!

- Herb

hrant's picture

Our views of revivalism might differ (greatly) but our definitions of it actually seem to be sufficiently similar.

Well, it's not as bad as insider trading, or practicing law, or running an election campaign. But compared to what a type designer could be doing I think there is in fact something fundamentally wrong with it. Others (such as Gerard Unger, and Nick Shinn, at least in a former self :-) have also expressed such views.

hhp

Nick Shinn's picture

I got a lot of flak here for saying so.
Nobody likes to be told their work is second rate by someone who thinks they’re better.
It was also very hard to convince people that Myriad and Helvetica aren’t original designs!

Of course, I don’t think there is anything wrong with reviving old designs, and there is a market for them, and they serve many useful purposes—my biggest beef was that I don’t think revivals are type design, they’re technical/styling work. Robin Nicholas made a similar point in the recent Eye special on Monotype—that he didn’t think of himself as a type designer, that was what Herman Zapf did (although I would disagree with him on that count, as he has done some quite original work, as well as things like Arial).

Ultimately, there are some problems with criticizing those who work in the same industry, and, considering the shades of grey between original and knock-off, I now think it’s better to accentuate the positive (I’m writing something on Karloff for Typographica’s Best of 2012), and make any argument through my work. But I’ll still discuss this issue here, hopefully in a more nuanced manner than the past.

hrant's picture

Just to be crystal, to me it's really not about who's better. It's about keeping an open mind to improve yourself, and helping people, sometimes with a well-meaning slap in the face. You don't want that slap? Hide.

hhp

HVB's picture

Different designers have different talents. I would much rather see a well-done version of a circa 1900 display font, done by a competent copyist, than a new typeface by someone who lacks artistic merit. And I'd certainly like to see some older display typefaces used for logos, advertising, and shopfronts instead of overused ubiquitous faces such as Papyrus and Vivaldi. - Herb

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