This article is from the Copyright Law FAQ, by Terry Carroll with numerous contributions by others.
First, let's distinguish between a font and a typeface. A typeface is
the scheme of letterforms (which is really what you're probably talking
about), and the font is the computer file or program (or for that matter,
a chunk of metal) which physically embodies the typeface.
A font may be the proper subject of copyright, but the generally accepted
rule is that a typeface embodied in the font is not (see Eltra Corp. v.
Ringer, 579 F.2d 294, 208 U.S.P.Q. 1 (4th Cir., 1978), and the House of
Representatives Report on the Copyright Law Revision, 94-1476, 94th
Congress, 2d Session at 55 (1976), reprinted in 1978 U.S. Cong. and
Admin. News 5659, 5668).
The letterforms themselves are not copyrightable under U.S. law as a
typeface. 37 CFR 202.1(e). A font is copyrightable if it adds some
level of protectable expression to the typeface, but that protection does
not extend to the underlying uncopyrightable typeface itself (see 17
In essence, a font will be protectable only if it rises to the level of a
computer program. Truetype and other scalable fonts will therefore be
protected as computer programs, a particular species of literary works.
Bitmapped fonts are not copyrightable, because in the opinion of the
Copyright Office, the bitmap does not add the requisite level of
originality to satisfy the requirement for copyright.
So, to summarize this point, a typeface is not copyrightable. While a
scalable font might be copyrightable as a program, merely copied the
uncopyrightable typeface, and creating your own font, either scalable or
bitmapped, is probably not an infringement, assuming you did not copy any
of the scalable font's code.
First, even if typefaces can't be copyrighted, they can be patented under
existing design patent laws. 35 U.S.C. 171. Copying a typeface and
distributing such a font, while not a violation of copyright, might be an
infringement of the patent.
Second, Congress has been considering design protection legislation for
many years (most recently, the 102nd Congress' H.R. 1790) which, if
passed, would protect typeface design. If such a bill is enacted, the
above opinion will be obsolete and incorrect.