One of my most treasured possessions is the set list from the second gig I ever went to. It was Counting Crows, on their first European tour, in Köln. My sister, my best friend and I got to go Without Our Parents. There was a road trip. There might have been a cheeky Pils or two. The band’s set was a mesmerizing introduction, for me, to the power of live performance in a tiny space. We made it into the TV footage. It was a special, memorable occasion in every possible way.
But best of all was getting the set list at the end, in the iconic handwriting that had featured on their first album cover. In those heady days before Twitter and Instagram made our idols as accessible to us as our own friends, that handwriting was a connection, a new way of identifying or finding an affinity with the writer, another characteristic to mimic. For a short period, I tried very hard to copy that handwriting for my own mix tapes, letters to friends, and the occasional essay.
So this recent news story caught my attention: the SongwritersFonts website, which provided freely available fonts based on the handwriting of musical heroes Kurt Cobain, Leonard Cohen, David Bowie, John Lennon and Serge Gainsbourg, has been shut down after threats of legal action in relation to intellectual property rights.
This strikes me both as a misery-guts overreaction (contrast to Matt Groening, who seems happy to allow many Simpsons / Groening fonts to be made available) but, perhaps more importantly, scare tactics. The creation of a font is a manual drawing / design process (special shout out to my friend Gary L, who was the first person I knew to do this for his own handwriting). If you draw a new font, you can copyright it. But can handwriting itself be copyrighted? The musicians’ estates (or one of them) may have managed to spook the designers of SongwritersFonts with their cease and desist messages, but is there actually a legal case to answer? The fonts that were on the site are new creations reflecting samples of the artists’ handwriting; there might be a brand issue (in terms of the website’s ability to use the musicians’ names to promote its content) but I don’t think the copyright angle sticks.
The Scholarly Kitchen audience seems like the right Venn diagram of publishing / music / copyright geeks to consult. What do you think?