Is it unlawful or unethical to alter a font?

My clients keeps complaining about the fact that the capital G in their corporate font is hard to read because it does not have a horizontal bar in the cap G. I simply draw a rectangle on large headlines. Is it unlawful or unethical to alter the font by creating an alternate glyph with that bar?


  • John HudsonJohn Hudson Posts: 2,815
    That will depend entirely on the license under which the font is used. There is no standard within foundry licenses regarding modifying fonts: some foundries forbid it, some require notification (and may want to do the work themselves), and quite a few permit it with some obvious restrictions, e.g. modified font must have a differentiated menu name, copyright and license information must be retained, foundry accepts no liablity and provides no support for modified font, and, of course, the modified font must not be distributed and can only be used within the organisation under the same terms as the original license.
  • @James Bridges do you mean you're doing this inside design software?  not actually modifying the font software?  I've heard there are some licenses that try to forbid that but I don't actually know if it's enforceable.  I'd say it's definitely ethical.
  • Rob BarbaRob Barba Posts: 86
    I'm in agreement with @JoyceKetterer.  If it's just in design software and with no attempt made to sell or distribute the font, I don't see a problem with it, legally.  Granted, ultimately I would try to contact the font creator and let him know; maybe they'll do a new font update based on the request and send it your way.  Couldn't hurt to check at a minimum.
  • Ray LarabieRay Larabie Posts: 1,335
    @Rob Barba Correct: asking the typeface designer is a wise first step.

    I've been contacted by customers for minor alterations like this and never charged the client for it. Sometimes the altered character will get added to the official release as an alternate. In some cases, the character they were looking for already existed in the font as an alternate that they didn't know about. Of course, if changes are extensive, I'll invoice for it, but nine out of ten times, the requested changes are related to crossbars: alter the length, add, or remove.

    These change requests are valuable to me because they help me decide which unorthodox designs warrant a traditional alternate. Or in more stark typeface designs, the opposite.
  • Ditto @Ray Larabie on alts.  Sorry I didn't think of that.  It is true that the "different" letter form customers ask us for is shockingly often already in the font as an alt.  What we usually do in that case is make them a renamed built with the alts swapped (it's ever so much easier to access that way).
  • Thanks for the comments. I will ask the foundry.
  • I’d like to turn this question around: Is it ethical for a designer or publisher of a font to demand that a user not alter the font in any way? And what, exactly, constitutes an alteration? The “offense” that’s usually discussed in this regard, as it is in this thread, is the alteration of a letterform. But what about the sort of alteration of the font designer’s original intent that I, myself, find an egregious debasement of the design: the use of tracking or unequal scaling or insufficient line spacing that may render a font unrecognizable? These have no bearing on the font, per se, but have much to do with how the font is perceived by readers. Does any EULA try to limit that sort of thing? If not, what real use is the EULA in regard to design integrity? 

    A related question: Has there ever been an actual court case regarding the design-related terms for font use as described in a EULA? 

    To be clear, these hypotheticals make certain assumptions: the font(s) in question have been lawfully purchased; the user alteration is for singular personal or professional use only, not for resale.

  • JoyceKettererJoyceKetterer Posts: 766
    edited March 2022
    Maybe your question was rhetorical.  No, it's not unethical.  Fonts are tools.  Some designers forget in the making that they don't control their fonts once they release them into the world.  I don't even think it's ethical to limit the kinds of uses.  I don't always like the users of our fonts but the only reasonable choice i have is to not give them a discount.  

    Note:  I refer to retail fonts not custom work
  • Thomas PhinneyThomas Phinney Posts: 2,583
    I am not sure I would agree it is *unethical* to limit the kinds of uses… just impractical, and arguably unreasonable.
  • @Thomas Phinney - Well, I think it’s unethical because it’s impractical. It’s unethical to make that kind of demand in a licensee. The customer is then put in a potentially untenable position. I think there’s a duty of care that comes with being the one to write the license.
  • Cory MaylettCory Maylett Posts: 244
    edited March 2022
    I liken this to buying, for example, a clock radio. I didn't purchase the rights to the technology inside the radio, but if I want to take it apart and fiddle with it for my private purposes, I should be able to do so.
  • Long before graphic designers used computers we ordered type from typesetters. They would deliver photo-prints. We would cut them up to tighten letter spacing and sometimes alter a letter by removing something or adding a rubylith shape. Nobody ever thought we were violating a license. Maybe we were. But, then we would send it back to the typesetter and they would make it perfect. The typesetter never complained. Back in the 1980s we often spent $30,000 for type on a 12 page brochure. Did type designers get much of that 30K? I hope so.
  • Joyce, it was partly rhetorical, especially the question about (the nonexistent) court cases. I post something along these lines every time the topic comes up. What I’m railing against is bullying. One can make all sorts of outlandish demands in an agreement, even if they are just so much hot air. Unfortunately, many people are unaware that contracts, or portions of contracts, that “look” legal may not stand up in court. Fortunately, in U.S. law we have the doctrine of severability, which means that if one section of an agreement is determined to be illegal, the remainder stays enforceable.

    What is serious in a EULA? The number and nature of permitted installations, protection from theft, and prohibition of resale and commercialization, and perhaps a couple of other things. Modification for private use is de facto legal, by virtue of the fact that the sort of egregious modification I mentioned above is clearly beyond the scope of any EULA, as is the turning of font characters into editable outlines in many of the major applications in which fonts are used. Moreover, there’s this: no one is willing to spend the money to test it in court, not even the largest organizations. There’s nothing to be gained.

  • I asked the foundry and they sent me updated font files that had an alterate glyphs. Thanks for the suggestion to do that. That is a perfect way to do it.
  • Rob BarbaRob Barba Posts: 86
    I liken this to buying, for example, a clock radio. I didn't purchase the rights to the technology inside the radio, but if I want to take it apart and fiddle with it for my private purposes, I should be able to do so.

    That sounds quite a bit like Right to Repair laws (at least in some US jurisdictions) and it brings up an intriguing issue if such would conflict with current IP and or software laws in the US or other jurisdictions.
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