Although the technology of printing text using movable type was invented in China, and despite the esteem which calligraphy held in that civilization, the vast number of Chinese characters meant that few distinctive, complete fonts were created in China in the early centuries of printing.
Gutenberg's innovation in the mid 15th century was not printing itself, but casting type pieces with reusable molds. From then until at least 400 years later, type started with cutting punches, which acted as the masters. The material that was cut formed a prototype of the character from which type was cast by various means from an alloy usually containing lead. Type design accounted for the limitations of the printing process, such as the splashing properties of ink or the wear on the type itself.
In many countries, though not the United States of America, type design could be copyrighted typeface by typeface. The USA offered and continues to offer design patents as an option for typeface design protection.
Beginning in the 1890s, for the American Type Founders Corporation, and a few others using their technology, each character was drawn in a very large size, over a foot (30 cm) high. The outline was then traced by a Benton pantograph-based engraving machine with a pointer at the hand-held vertex and a cutting tool at the opposite vertex down to a size usually less than a quarter-inch (6 mm). The pantographic engraver was first used to cut punches, and later to directly create matrices.
With the coming of computers, especially those on designers' desktops, type design became a form of computer graphics, employing specialized type design programs, called font editors. Although the first digital fonts were pixel-based bitmap fonts, by the mid-1990s scalable outline vector fonts became the norm. Hence most font editors are essentially specialized vector drawing programs.
Each glyph design can be drawn or traced by a stylus on a digitizing board, or modified from a scanned drawing, or composed entirely within the program itself. Each glyph is then in a digital form, either in a bitmap (pixel-based) or vector (scalable outline) format. Although a given digitization of a typeface can be easily be modified by another type designer, such a modified font is usually considered a derivative work, and is covered by the copyright of the original font software.