Free Fonts – Freeness as a Technological Component of Typeface Design

A short essay that formed the basis of a short presentation on Free Fonts to the 2012 is Type Conference, Istanbul, Turkey.


‘Freeness’, vernacular English, meaning; being free and able to act at will, being open or available to all.

Presenting the idea that ‘freeness’ is a technological aspect of a font’s design, as equally important as ‘legibility’, ‘render quality’, or ‘language support’, and that, free fonts can enable usage that proprietary fonts are not designed for.

Type on the web is nothing like type on paper

The traditional relationship between font and reader, i.e. reading type on paper, is based on reading the printed artifact of a font, not the font itself. The internet has changed that relationship. Type has moved from paper, to widespread use within digital documents that are made to be moved and viewed across the internet. Type on the web is nothing like type on paper. With web based text the font itself is delivered directly to the reading medium.

In addition, the nature of ‘publishing’ has been changed by the internet, giving new access to and new forms of mass communication. More people can communicate their ideas and thoughts to more people, more freely, than ever before. There has been a steady explosion of textual content that is highly mobile, editable, searchable, can be archived, copied, and shared. In short, a major aspect of this content is its freeness. Text based content also means, potentially, typographically rich content. Ideally and practically, these new means of publishing and this new content need fonts that are as free as the content and technologies themselves. Set with proprietary type, this content would be less free; it could no longer necessarily be so freely moved, shared, or copied.

Proprietary Licensing versus Free Content

Delivering real fonts to users devices creates an issue with traditional font licensing. To render ‘active text’, with a served font, in a browser, a ‘real font’ has to be served onto the web. Once served, that font file becomes open to unlicensed use; users who have not paid for and agreed licensing terms to use a font are potentially able to access the font anyway. As the use of real fonts across the web became a technical practicality this became an issue for those producing, publishing and selling proprietary fonts. By 2009 there had emerged a general consensus within the ‘type industry’ that allowing real fonts on the web, with or without permission, was at best, a technical issue that needed resolving in favour of font vendors, and at worst, a technology that should not be adopted. As David Berlow of Font Bureau stated in an interview in 2009, in which he outlined the need for a new web-specific font standard and a new OpenType ‘permissions table’;

“How important dynamically rendered type is to design and use on the web must now be clear. In addition, the only other option [to e.g. a ‘permissions table’] – that the type industry cede its intellectual property to the public without permission – is not going to happen.”(1)

or, as Chester Jenkins of the Village group of type foundries explained in 2010;

“We are 100% against @font-face, because it makes specified OpenType fonts freely accessible by, and to all. It is one thing to unknowlingly ‘share’ a Web-only font file, but quite another to give away an OpenType font file which can be used for anything.”(2)

The main technical issue with allowing real font use onto the web was simple, how can you protect real fonts on the web from unlicensed use?

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Various proposals to protect fonts at browser level emerged from the font industry but these were not greeted well by net developers and net engineers. Firstly, the ‘policing’ of fonts on the web would have likely been wholly ineffective, and naturally, many on the development side of the web were not keen on building browser-level ‘Rights Management’ to restrict the web’s textual content. What emerged was, momentarily, a version of what Yochai Benkler describes as ‘a battle over the institutional ecology of the digital environment’(3). On one side, proprietary font foundries and vendors, on the other side, a wish to see libre software and open technology stay central at the heart of the web.

Putting up Hurdles

In the last few years more foundries have abandoned ideas of browser-side restrictions and instead adopted a more pragmatic approach to font usage across the web.  Instead of aiming restriction at the end user, some commercial webfont services are trying “putting up hurdles” at the font server end. For example, Adobe’s Typekit and Extensis’s Webink create barriers of, for example, address checking, concealment, and the segmentation of font files. The aim is clearly to create new revenue whilst protecting intellectual property. This approach tolerates some potential for unlicensed use against an understanding that normal users will not have the knowledge or inclination to climb or by-pass these hurdles.

These ‘Pay-as-you-serve’ webfont services can be practical for some web designers, for example, allowing the typesetting of exact typefaces also used in printed material. But what about the makers of the majority of the web’s typographic content, who may need something without specific restrictions imposed by proprietary licenses, or simply need the ease of open services, or just want to use totally free fonts?

Produsers and Users

“Open Source is powerful because it’s an alternative to the status quo, another way to produce things or solve problems. And in many cases, it’s a better way. Better because current methods are not fast enough, not ambitious enough, or don’t take advantage of our collective creative potential.”
– Thomas Goetz (4)

There is a definite role for proprietary font licensing on the web and there is no point undervaluing the qualities it can bring, but, in the context of the technologies and new markets of the web, proprietary licensing places restrictions that encumbers use. In fact, proprietary licensing is specifically designed to encumber use. On the other hand, fonts released under free or libre licenses allow and encourage greater freedom for type across the web. Once freely available, these fonts can become a viable example of what Thomas Goetz describes as, a fast and ambitious alternative. Google’s webfont directory is an example of Goetz’s notion in action, quickly building an ambitious library of ‘libre’ webfonts to produce a technology driven service in a way that proprietary foundries had either not tried to do, or had been slow, or less willing to do.

On the back of such free and easy accessible webfonts, other platforms and services, such as WordPress, Weebly, Drupal, Jimdo, etc, have been able, in turn, to enable typographic and theme diversity through the use of free and easy webfonts. For example; blog, web and CMS theme developers tend to need to be able to offer typographic choice where extra licensing is non-existent, where there are no terms or conditions agreements before fonts can be used, where there are no restrictions or fees pegged to usage, and where there are no restrictions on commercial use. Free fonts can deliver all of these these simply and freely, whereas fonts covered by proprietary licensing must compromise in one area or more in order to protect the fonts from unlicensed use and to ensure revenue from font usage. In the end, the sheer number of users of free webfonts highlights that they are the most effective way to set type amongst the free and open textual content of the modern web.

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The Democratisation of Content

“How we make information, how we get it, how we speak to others, and how others speak to us are core components of the shape of freedom in any society.”
– Yochai Benkler
(5)

“To put it crudely, you cannot lay your hands on capital like you can lay your hands on the written word”
– Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics.
(6)

“The age of the printing press is giving way to the age of the computer networks. And this change in copying technology changes the ethical context in which we have to look at the consequences of what copyright law says, and the same laws that were painless, easy to enforce and arguably beneficial, in the age of the printing press, are none of those things today.”
– Richard Stallman
(7)

Type is highly relevant at times of societal change, because without access to type, communicating, publishing and sharing unauthorised ideas, as text, is constrained. The new utilisation of moveable type in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries enabled the growth of diverse threads in early modern Europe such as anti-authoritarianism, Nonconformism, The Enlightenmnet and Protestantism . The new, relatively cheap and mobile, technologies of electric typewriters and photocopiers enabled the emerging counter culture publications of the 1960′s and ’70′s.

A web dominated by proprietary fonts would be a web where rich typography would end up confined to certain sectors or districts of the web. At a time when the free-ness of net based communications comes more and more into focus, it may be important that the typesetting of text on the web becomes more free.


Vernon Adams, June 2012

(1) Real Fonts on the Web: An Interview with The Font Bureau’s David Berlow
by Jeffrey Zeldman, David Berlow. http://www.alistapart.com/articles/realfontsontheweb/
(2) Eye Magazine No.75. ‘Monitor: End of default’ by Simon Esterson, Jay Prynne.
(3) Yochai Benkler, The Wealth of Networks – How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom. http://www.jus.uio.no/sisu/the_wealth_of_networks.yochai_benkler/
(4) Thomas Goetz,’Open Source Everywhere’, Wired Magazine #11, 2003.
(5) Yochai Benkler, The Wealth of Networks – How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom. http://www.jus.uio.no/sisu/the_wealth_of_networks.yochai_benkler/
(6) Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics, p.55
(7) Richard Stallman, ‘Copyright versus Community’; a talk given at Ravensbourne College of Design & Communication, UK, 2004.

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