If you have ever opened a wedding invitation from Zazzle, you have likely crossed paths with the Blooming Elegant font, a curly typeface in the “handwritten” family. Well, until recently. Its disappearance from the website last summer at the behest of its designer raised a common question with a surprising answer: Can you copyright a font?
You Cannot Copyright a Typeface – You Can Copyright a Font Software
Technically, the shape of letters – what many of us call a “font” – is more accurately a typeface. And a “font” is a software application that installs and allows you to use a typeface on your computer.
The U.S. Copyright Office allows designers to register their font software but not the typeface itself. This is understandably confusing to many working designers, especially the less experienced. I will quote some of their reasoning to help explain:
“Generally, typeface, fonts, and lettering are building blocks of expression that are used to create works of authorship. The Office cannot register a claim to copyright in typeface or mere variations of typographic ornamentation or lettering, regardless of whether the typeface is commonly used or unique.”
The Office’s logic emphasizes complete works over components. Thus, designers can register a complete software system to utilize a typeface, like Roboto Slab Bold. If a person or company wants to use the typeface for commercial purposes, they usually need to pay for a license to gain access to the font software.
Did Zazzle Act in Subterfuge?
Nicky Laatz, the creator of the Blooming Elegant font trio, is an experienced designer based in the UK. Her problem with Zazzle’s actions unfolded in several parts, which led to her putting Zazzle on infringement notice in 2020:
- Zazzle contacted Laatz asking if she could sell a “server-based” font license for Blooming Elegant in 2016
- When Zazzle could not obtain this license, the company instructed an engineer to purchase an individual license
- The engineer installed the software on Zazzle servers, making it available as a font choice on the website
- Zazzle did not pay Laatz royalties from any purchased items that featured the Blooming Elegant font trio
Laatz believes Zazzle knew the license they purchased did not allow for this broad use. She also points out that Blooming Elegant was not a minor player on Zazzle – it helped build the success of the site as one of its most-used fonts in recent years.
Why did so many designers embrace the Blooming Elegant font on their invitations, stationary, mugs, wine labels…? The font contains looping flourishes that extend from the letters, which designers can customize to fit into whatever space their text must occupy – quite useful in the personalized kitsch space.
Zazzle’s Defense & the Booming Elegant Debate
Zazzle points out that Laatz did not respond when they did try to obtain a server-based license. And they learned that typefaces are not protected by copyright.
However, Laatz knows her field well, and she claims that Zazzle infringed on the font software, not just the typeface, which is protected. We shall see if Laatz position holds up in court.
In the meantime, Zazzle has pulled the typeface from its virtual shelves. And across the world, designers have protested, often in a polarized way: either pro-Zazzle or pro-Laatz.
Some believe that Zazzle tries to profit from the creativity of designers without proper licenses. Others see Laatz as the one trying to make “easy money” by suing Zazzle, and they fear that designers who used Blooming Elegant may be next in line. I am curious to see if this case clarifies or expands copyright law surrounding font software and typeface in the modern age.