Note, July 2023: See the end of the post for a note about some new issues with this process!
I promised a few font designers that I would create a tutorial on how to register fonts with the copyright office, once I had it all figured out and had successfully completed some of my own registrations. Standard disclaimer: I’m not a lawyer or intellectual property professional; this is not legal or professional advice. This is just what I, as an individual content creator, have been successful with.
This post won’t get into why you’d want to register your copyright; there are dozens of articles that cover why registering with the government is an extra helpful step above and beyond the automatic basic copyright protections we all get as soon as a creative work is made. If you’d like to read up a bit, here are a couple of articles, and an info page from the US copyright office.
I also won’t really get into the fact that in the USA, you can’t copyright the typeface—that is to say, the artistically drawn letters—but you can copyright the computer code of the font where those letters live. Let’s just say it’s a weird and funky distinction that’s due for a major overhaul.
There aren’t a lot of steps to registering a copyright for a font. It’s basically:
– Get the source code for the font in a PDF;
– Fill out the application form;
– Pay a fee (in this case, $55.00 USD);
– Upload the source code PDF to the copyright office;
– Patiently wait for the government to do its thing, for around 2 to 6 months.
Let’s walk through the process step-by-step!
GETTING THE CODE
First up, we need to get the source code of the font, and put it into a PDF as text. I’ve worked in both Font Creator and Type 3.2, and I haven’t found an easy way to extract the source code in a readable format from either of those programs. I can’t vouch for FontLab, Fontographer, Glyphs, or any other premium program.
What I’ve had to do is use the free FontForge program to save the font to a specific file format, then use a text editor to view the code of that file.
The first step is to open your OTF or TTF font file in FontForge. (FontForge is a free open source program, with versions for Windows, Mac, and GNU+Linux. You can download it here.)
Once you have the font open, you don’t need to make any changes at all to it. The only thing to do is save it to a different file format. So with your font open in FontForge, go to File > Save as…
And save your font as an .SFD file. (SFD stands for Spline Font Database, and it’s the native work file format that FontForge uses. It basically documents all the font data in text form, which is exactly what we need in order to see the source code.)
You can save this file to any folder you like; just put it somewhere easy to access. I’ve saved it to my desktop in this example.
Next up, we need to open that SFD file in a text editor. You could use plain old Notepad (which comes pre-installed with all Windows computers) or any other text editor. This screenshot is from Notepad++, which has a more robust set of editing tools for text-based coding. (It’s also a free open source program like FontForge.)
Once again, you don’t need to edit this code in any way. All we’re going to do is print it to a PDF.
Go to your printer options, and select “Adobe PDF” if you have it. Then click on the “Preferences” button, about halfway down the right side of that Print window. You’ll get the Printing Preferences window. Under the Layout tab, you can select how many pages of code you want to appear on each page of the PDF.
I’ve generally gone with 4 pages of code for every portrait-style page of the PDF. It shrinks the PDF down to a quarter of the size it would be if you just straight-up printed it, while still keeping everything large enough that you can easily read the code.
(How big can these get? With four pages of code to every page of the PDF, my font Barn Dance still has a PDF that’s 342 pages long. Alternately, Pinsetter is a 95-page PDF, with two pages of code per PDF page. It all depends on how many nodes/handles/sections are in each letter, and how many characters you have; all of those elements have their own lines in the code.)
Once you have a PDF of the source code of your font, you’re ready to register!
WELCOME TO THE COPYRIGHT WEBSITE!
I’ll admit right off the bat, the Copyright.gov website is … not great. This home page is surprisingly hard to navigate, for having as little content as it has. To start the registration process, you’ll want to click on the “Register” box, on top of the photo of a band looking at their instruments.
From here, you have two options: if you’d like to get more information, and make sure that you’re registering in the right category, you can click on “Other Digital Content” down below, over the top of the picture of a man looking at a computer.
When you’re ready to start the application, click on the “Log in to the Electronic Copyright Office (eCO) Registration System” link at the top. If you don’t already have an account with the eCO system, you’ll need to create one.
Once you’ve created an account and you’re logged in, you’ll want to click on the “Standard Application” link, the only link under the big red Register a Work heading. Since your source code contains both work that you’ve created (the shapes of the letters, as well as your kerning and other formatting,) and work created by others (standardized code churned out by your font creation program), this is the form you have to use.
(For some types of work, you can use “Register One Work by One Author” down under Other Registration Options. This is the option I’ve used when registering my novels, because the text of the novel is 100% my own original creation, with no elements from any other parties. It’s a less expensive registration [$35.00 USD], but it can only be used in very specific types of work; you can’t use that option for a font.)
FILLING OUT THE APPLICATION
Here we go! Let’s walk through the Standard Application step by step. Be sure to read through each page of the application to make sure you’re including the correct information. Red asterisks next to any text field or option indicate that those are required.
You’ll almost always have this little chart on the left side of the page, which will show your progress through the application. (It disappears when you’re on certain screens, but it always comes back as you move forward.) The screenshots coming up will concentrate on the right side of the page; don’t worry that they don’t show this checklist, I’ve just cropped it out to make the screenshots more concise.
First up, you’ll select the type of work. Choose “Literary Work” from the drop-down menu. I know, that sounds weird. But when you choose it, you’ll see the fine print appear below, and in the list of types of work covered as literary, you’ll see “compilations of information, computer programs, and databases.” That’s what you have with your source code: a compilation of information.
Check the box below that confirms you’ve picked the right type of work, then click the Continue button at the top of the page.
Next, you’ll add the title of the work. In the case of a font, it’s the name of the font.
Click the “New” button to add in your title/font name. (You can see that this screenshot is from my Barn Dance application.) Once you have it in there, click the Continue button to move along.
Next up, they want to know if the work has been published. For me, the answer is always going to be “yes”; I don’t want to create a font, submit a registration, and then wait a few months for that to finalize before I start selling the font, and I bet you don’t want to do that either. So for me, publishing comes first, then registration afterward.
There are a couple of different dates they want in here. The Year of Completion is the year that the work on the font was finished, while the Date of First Publication is the date you first published it in a public space. For a font, your publication date will most likely be in the same year as the Year of Completion. When would these be different? An example is a novel: you may write it in 2019, but it doesn’t get published until 2021.
For my example, I created Barn Dance in 2017, and posted it for sale in most marketplaces on November 1, 2017.
I’ve left several fields empty here; International Standard Number Type, International Standard Number, and Preregistration Number are all non-required fields (they don’t have the big red asterisk), and I don’t have information to put into them anyway. Leave those blank, and continue on!
Author! The notes at the top explain what they’re looking for here. If you’re making your own fonts and selling them through your own shop, and you didn’t create the font as a work-for-hire for anyone else, this section is all you.
Fun fact: I don’t have a middle name. I legally changed my name over 20 years ago, and didn’t feel the need to keep my previous middle name or get a new one. But if you have a middle name or initial, you can put that in the Middle Name field; especially if you have a common name, it can help keep your registrations separate from anyone else with the same name.
You don’t need to include your year of birth, but I do; it helps differentiate me from the other Missy Meyer (also with no middle name or middle initial), born in 1961, who appears to have written the lyrics to a song called “Cream Colored Speed Machine.” I can’t find evidence of the existence of this song, which breaks my heart.
Next up, you’ll tell them what, exactly, the author created. You may be tempted to check the Computer Program box, but don’t do it! What you want to do is put “Source Code” down in the box next to Other.
(Ask me how I know you don’t want to check the Computer Program box? Yep, I ticked that box on an application, and got contacted by my examiner, who let me know where I’d gone wrong. Every examiner I’ve been in touch with has been amazingly nice, and they can always fix errors on an application, but it’s fastest and easiest if everything is right to begin with.)
Next up is the Claimants screen, where you’ll click the “New” button and add yourself in as the claimant.
IMPORTANT NOTE: They’ll want a physical address on this page for you; I always use my post office box here. This contact information will appear in a search of the copyright database, so don’t include any information here that you don’t want publicly available.
What’s the difference between the Author and the Claimant? Basically, the Author is the person who made the work, and the Claimant is the person who will own the copyright to that work. Most of the time, they’re the same person. But if you created a work for hire, or if you’re transferring all of the rights to someone else, these will be different people. For more information about a separate Claimant, and how to officially transfer rights to someone else, check out this help page from the Copyright site.
This next section, Limitation of Claim, is very very very important. This is where you’re basically telling the copyright office, “I made part of this myself, but part of this was automatically churned out by my font creation program.”
In the left “Other” box, put: Source Code: Standardized source code created by third party software.
In the right “Other” box, put: Source Code: Hand coded portions of the submitted source code.
You’re telling the copyright office that you make no claims to the standardized parts that your font creation program spits out; you’re only claiming the parts that you coded in yourself by hand: the nodes and curves of the letter shapes, the OpenType coding, the kerning.
I know you’ll be tempted, but once again, do not check the “Computer Program” boxes on either side.
A FEW SPOTS WITHOUT SCREENSHOTS
These are quickies!
Rights & Permissions: here you can add contact information, so if there’s someone out there who wants to get the rights to use your registered work, they know how to find you. I advise at least an email address; I also include my PO box here for those who prefer snail mail. This information will appear in the public record, so don’t include anything here that you don’t want available to the world.
Correspondent: this is the way the copyright office will contact you, and this information will also appear on your registration. Another good reason to have a PO box for things like this!
Mail Certificate: this can be your home address; it’s where they’ll mail your certificate. This information won’t appear on your finalized registration.
Special Handling: do you need this registered faster than usual? Is there pending litigation, or an issue with customs? You can click “Continue” without including anything here, if you’re cool with this just being a regular-speed registration.
Last but not least, the Certification page. Here’s where you swear that everything you’ve put into this form is true and valid. Check the box and put in your name.
Down in the “Note to Copyright Office” area, I like to recap the weird parts; it’s probably because I’m a serial overexplainer. I’ll probably always include a note that the source code is for a font, as shown here. I don’t know that it matters, but I’d feel weird sending in a chunk of computer code without letting them know somewhere what the code was actually for, y’know?
PAYING AND UPLOADING
When you’ve finished all of these pages of the application, you’ll get a chance to review your submission. Look over everything, make sure it all looks ship-shape. Then click the “Add to Cart” button to add this registration to your shopping cart. It’s going to feel weird to pay before you’ve uploaded your PDF, because it feels like the application isn’t complete yet. But this is the order they want things in: application, payment, then upload at the very end.
Checking out will take you to the Pay.gov website, where you can pay the $55 fee with a bank account or credit card.
After the payment is successful, you’ll get a confirmation screen. Click the “Complete Submission” button to move forward to the upload screen.
On the upload screen, click the green “Select files to upload” button to choose your PDF, then click the blue “Start upload” button to send it up. Once it’s uploaded, there’s a green “Click here to complete your submission after uploading all files” button on the right. Click that and you’re done!
(You can also print out the code on paper and send it by mail, but … why?)
It can take 2-6 months to process. For Pinsetter and Allspice, my first registrations, it was about 3 months, and the examiner had a lot of questions; we made a number of adjustments to the information. It was new territory on both ends; they apparently haven’t had very many registrations for fonts, so we sort of collectively hammered out the best way for these to appear.
After those registrations were completed, I sent in the application for Barn Dance, to make sure I had everything good to go for this tutorial. There was only one thing I did wrong on that one (don’t be like me: do NOT check the “Computer Program” box anywhere you see it), so we only had one email back and forth. It took just shy of two months to be finalized, so it was even faster than expected!
Will I register all of my fonts? Probably not. But I’m registering the ones that seem to be the most popular with folks who want to resell it without my permission, or create new derivative works without my permission, or generally use them in unlicensed ways … without my permission.
For reference, here’s the completed registration for Barn Dance, so you can see where all of the information from the application shows.
Good luck with your own registrations!
Note, July 2023: I’ve had a couple of folks contact me because their examiners are asking some specific questions, mainly that the applicants need to point out exactly what parts of the source code are the hand-coded ones. And that even if you point out that you’re placing nodes by hand, and entering OpenType coding by hand, because it’s all compiled into one file by the font creation software, they’re trying to say that code is all computer-generated. I’m not sure what the solution to this is.