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Typeface Designer’s Lawsuit against Former Business Partner Raises Questions of Business Formation, Intellectual Property Rights

Futura.svg.pngA lawsuit pitting two of the world’s most famous typeface designers against each other has brought a great deal of attention to an often obscure area of design. Choosing the right typeface has been an important part of marketing one’s business for about as long as printing has existed. Thanks to the internet and advances in digital technology, popular typefaces may generate millions of dollars in licensing fees. The parties in Frere-Jones v. Hoefler, No. 650139/2014, complaint (NY Sup. Ct., NY Co., Jan. 16, 2014), are considered superstars among typeface designers. The plaintiff is seeking $20 million in damages over an allegedly broken promise to share the business 50/50, and many valuable typefaces hang in the balance.

The words “typeface” or “font” refer to a set of symbols, including letters, numbers, and punctuation, with common design elements. Many well-known typefaces, such as Arial and Courier, are included with many computers and software applications. Typefaces are also available to license for use in marketing and other business publications. Licensing fees allow designers the opportunity to continue making money from their creations in much the same way that musicians receive income through royalty payments. Businesses may also commission typefaces for their own exclusive use. Copyright law generally protects typefaces, although trademark law may cover a specific use of a typeface in a logo or other design.

The plaintiff, Tobias Frere-Jones, claims in his complaint that he has designed more than eight hundred fonts during his career, which are used all over the world in more than 145 languages. The defendant, Jonathan Hoefler, is the founder of a New York design firm known as The Hoefler Type Foundry (HTF), which did business under the name Hoefler & Frere-Jones from 1999 until recently. Their firm has created fonts for newspapers like the Wall Street Journal, Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, and countless logos appearing on televisions, product packaging, and elsewhere. According to a description of the company in Bloomberg Businessweek, the two designers are like rock stars in the design world, with one colleague comparing their business partnership to the musical group Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.

The lawsuit asserts causes of action for breach of contract and fraud, claiming that Hoefler never fulfilled his promise to transfer 50 percent of the equity in HTF to Frere-Jones despite Frere-Jones’ performance of all of his obligations under their agreement. He claims that Hoefler encouraged him to move to New York from Boston, where he had been working at a design firm, in 1999. Hoefler allegedly promised him half of the business in exchange for his reputation, business goodwill, design knowledge, and the rights to several typefaces he had created.

Hoefler handled the “business” side of things, Frere-Jones claims, while he did design work. The assignment of Frere-Jones typefaces to HTF was completed in March 2004. The typefaces had a royalty value at that time, Frere-Jones claims, of around $3 million. Despite this, Hoefler allegedly never fulfilled his part of the promise. Frere-Jones filed suit in January 2014. A motion by Hoefler to dismiss the lawsuit as untimely is awaiting the court’s review.

If you or your business has a dispute over a contract or other business matter, a skilled business and commercial lawyer can advise you of your rights and protect your interests. James G. Schwartz has represented Bay Area businesses since 1976. To schedule a free and confidential consultation to discuss your case, please contact us today online or at (925) 463-1073.

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Photo credit: By Dyfsunctional at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons.