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Font companies crack down on student

Design companies are attempting to pull from the Web a program that eases restrictions on font-creation software, saying the technology violates a controversial 1998 copyright law.

Talk about the fine print.

A group of design companies has been lobbing legal threats at a graduate student over a font-altering program he created in his teens, saying it could violate digital copyright laws that make it illegal to circumvent anti-copying features in software.

At issue is Embed, a program created five years ago by Carnegie Mellon computer science and design student Tom Murphy. The application eases restrictions on font-creation software that make it difficult to copy typefaces. Such restrictions may let developers print and preview fonts, for example, but not embed them in documents where they can be edited.

Murphy's Embed program has raised the hackles of several font-creation companies, which fear it could be used to remove technology that protects copyrighted fonts. Since January, an attorney representing The Monotype Corp., International Typeface and Agfa Monotype has been sending Murphy a series of letters asking him to stop posting Embed and warning him that he could be violating the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA).

"Use of 'Embed' on a copyrighted font is a clear violation of the DMCA," wrote Paul F. Stack, an attorney with Stack & Filpi who is representing the companies.

In an interview Friday, Murphy, 22, said Embed removes limits on font use by switching a few ones and zeroes in the font file. But he added that he created the program to make it easier for developers to use fonts that he had created himself, rather than remove restrictions on copyrighted fonts.

"I wanted everyone to be able to use my fonts whenever they wanted," he said.

Embed is the latest program caught in the broad sweep of the DMCA. The 1998 law has been wielded by copyright holders against a range of alleged digital infractions, but its scope is still being tested in the courts. In a major win for backers of the law, a federal judge last year ordered publisher Eric Corley to remove links from his Web site to a software program known as DeCSS that may be used to defeat encryption features on DVDs. The decision was upheld by an appeals court, but it could face further review.

The companies aligned against Embed say the program was designed to circumvent copyright protections--an action that is specifically prohibited by the DMCA. The companies argue that restrictions placed on font use are copyright-protection devices.

Several companies have used the circumvention clause of the DMCA to crack down on programs that can be used to bypass protection schemes on movies, music or e-books.

An Agfa Monotype executive said the companies wouldn't comment on pending legal matters.

Meanwhile, Murphy said he isn't removing his program. Although he's ignored the companies' latest deadline to take it down, he hasn't heard from them.

"I figure they're either preparing their lawsuit or have decided the whole thing is a bad idea," he said. "I'm not looking for trouble, but I don't take kindly to bullying."