While perhaps not visible to everyone, in type design there are an infinite number of ways to make variation, innovation and improvement. In every step of the process of making a typeface there are opportunities to express personal preference. To a lay person the differences between typefaces might be difficult to spot, that does not mean that these differences do not exist. It does not mean that the differences are meaningless, nor does that take away the type designers’ right to claim a design to be his (or hers).
Intellectual property rights belong to the creator, they are not granted on the perceived value to society. Think about scientific research that is not understood by others not in the same field. The research does not become less useful because of this, nor does this break the bond between the work and its creator. Not everyone can tell the difference between Helvetica and Univers, this does not make either typeface a less personal expression of their respective designers.
Designing a typeface is a process in which a large number of (arbitrary) decisions on detail, construction, contrast, and relationships have to be taken. All of these decisions are choices between many options and alternatives for a particular situation. These decisions are made by the designer for many reasons, based on experience, preference, purpose, time, etc. If a typeface was made by someone else, it would have been different, even if the intent was to make the same thing. It is that collection of personal, specific decisions and opinions that make a typeface useful, appropriate, good or bad, that is its value. That also makes a typeface undeniably the intellectual property of its designer.
By looking at these decisions in a typeface, it is possible to tell whether a designer set out to make, for instance, a sans serif based on a low expansion contrast, or whether he tried to copy Helvetica. It is possible to tell whether a work is original or derived. It is possible to separate typefaces with added value from the ones with borrowed value. It is possible to distinguish between those who actually endeavour to make something new, and those who profiteer.
Note that not all derived designs are pirated. There are many cases where an existing design was built on, changed to fit a particular project, technology etc. In such a case, the design is licensed from the designer or publisher.
Making a good typeface is a lot of work. Stealing a typeface seems easier. But ripping off a typeface and claiming it as one’s own is counter-productive, uncreative, and in general corrosive to type and typography. This fails to contribute anything. Usually the profiteers are incapable of developing their own ideas, because if they had even the smallest spark of insight, they would take on the challenge of making their own type. Instead their underdeveloped typographic minds are occupied to make new TrueType versions of existing fonts, yet somehow they have perceived that their work is more about quantity than quality. Primarily of course because if they knew how to make good quality, they would not bother with the quantity, but perhaps also because of a denial of their own lack of talent.
There is an ever increasing need for new shapes, new ideas, new views in graphic design. Making new typefaces is an important part of typography and graphic design, and in a smaller way, culture in general. Repackaging existing typefaces, stealing designs, ripping off, “extracting”, whatever it is called, is a profiteer’s way of making money on someone else’s intellectual property (a practice which happens to be quite illegal in all developed countries except the USA). Catching a ride on someone else’s experience, parasites on ideas. The legalities of typeface theft are only a comfort to the profiteers themselves. To the rest, the designers, the typographers, anybody who uses type in an honest way, US copyright law only illustrates the lack of knowledge about the discipline. The type industry is not big, and spread all over the world, it cannot put together the massive budgets that the music and motion picture industry have to lobby for basic rights for basically equivalent intellectual property. Yet, small as it is, the type industry provides building blocks that are used in almost any other flavour of industry.
Considering that the type industry now consist of hundreds of small businesses, usually just one and two people with a computer and an idea, it is disappointing that in the US, the place where the concept of property, material and intellectual, has been an important force behind so much development and enterprise, the intellectual property of type design is valued in a such a manner. Font pirates steal from many, many, small companies, independent designers, people with ideas. There is no Robin Hood romance involved, there is no justice being done by offering fonts dirt cheap on rip-off CDs. If anything, font pirates would compare to ordinary highway robbers. Perhaps competition made them diversify.
Pirates that continue to advertise their contraband prevent new typefaces from being developed by denying income to the designers whose work is pirated. It denies graphic designers, typographers, everybody who uses type in some form or other, the new typefaces they look forward to. Pirates have no interest in type, they have an interest in the use that people have for type. Counter them when possible, be aware of their schemes. Distrust wonderful offers: one thousand legal fonts for $20 is not possible, just like a new car radio or a mountain bike for a fiver.