Ethics and legality of tracing handwriting

I am considering electronically tracing characters, or more precisely non-calligraphic glyphs, from a manuscript book in order to make a font.  These books are in a script which make up at least 30% of the book, which is a textbook teaching how to use the script.  I appreciate that I may have to touch up both the originals and the extracted outlines to get a good result.

Is there appreciable risk of my activities being unlawful?  The book was published in the kingdom of Laos and I will be working in the UK.  Would my activity be unethical?  Does it matter whether the manuscript was written by the author or by someone hired for his good handwriting?

I do not expect to gain financially by creating this font, and will probably release it under the SIL OFL, though at present I would prefer to release the GSUB table into the public domain.


  • Is the original author/calligrapher alive? Is it possible to reach them? If it is a textbook about how to use the script, I am guessing they would be fine with a typeface who can spread the use of that particular script but, on the other hand, I’d like to be contacted before someone wants to use my work for something else, even – or specially – if it is a free font.
  • RichardWRichardW Posts: 100
    I think the author (Phouy Panya) was in the cabinet of the government of the kingdom of Luang Prabang in 1941, which makes it highly unlikely.  I'm not even sure what actual significance his title (Phanya Luang Maha Sena), which means 'commander-in-chief', has.  I can't find any trace of him after 1970.  I don't know whose handwriting we actually see - my Lao is very poor, so I may easily have missed the crucial information.
  • As I understand, this is perfectly legal in the United States. I believe (and don't quote me) that it should be OK in the UK as well. Ethically speaking, in my opinion, there is nothing objectionable about basing a font on the handwriting of a person who died decades ago. Also, the fact that this is a textbook intended to teach you how to reproduce the script and put it into use makes it in my view particularly ethical to copy the example given. The author has pretty much asked you to copy his method; you're just shifting that from handwriting to digital fonts.
  • Nick ShinnNick Shinn Posts: 2,098
    Why not learn the script as per the instructions, then digitize your own writing?
    What could be more virtuous?
  • RichardWRichardW Posts: 100
    Writing neatly!  My handwriting in a Northern Thai style is pretty scruffy.  That's why I wondered whose the handwriting actually was.

    I may have to digitise my own handwriting for the characters he doesn't use, and fret over contextual forms.
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