By Kevin Yank

Web Fonts: Do Something Positive!

By Kevin Yank

Mark Pilgrim has fanned the flames of the web font debate with his post today, entitled F**k the Foundries. It’s a shame he chose to express his thoughts as an angry rant, because his tone undermines some important points.

The Debate in a Nutshell

This debate isn’t simple, but it isn’t terribly complicated either.

The good news is that the people actually involved in this debate (as opposed to those just shouting from the sidelines), including font vendors, browser vendors, and professional web designers, actually agree on some important points:

  • web fonts should not be encumbered by DRM (hooray!)
  • there should be a convenient way to license commercial fonts for use on the Web

Among the browser vendors there is heated debate over whether browsers should support the use of ‘free’ fonts (for most meanings of ‘free’) using existing file formats on the Web. In fact, this debate is a distraction that would immediately evaporate if the real issue could be resolved.

The only significant point that the people involved disagree on is whether or not the file format that is used for licensed, commercial fonts on the Web should include the details of the license embedded within it or not. If yes, the format must be developed and support added to browsers.

Microsoft has already built the beginnings of such a format, but further investment is needed. Meanwhile, there are many who believe that the time and effort required to develop, license, and support such a format in all major browsers is too great, or that it will have little or no practical benefit, and is therefore unjustifiable.

Right now, the game is at a stalemate; Microsoft and the commercial font vendors believe the new file format is needed, but are unable to develop it with the available time and money. Everyone else believes current font formats like OpenType are all we need, but they don’t control the fonts.

If you’ve ever played chess, you know there is nothing more frustrating than a stalemate: everyone walks away angry. That’s why the only real developments in the font debate lately seem to be explosions of anger like Mark Pilgrim’s.

Do Something Positive

As a web designer, whatever you believe, you’re probably frustrated too. Instead of joining the shouting match, try making a positive contribution to fonts on the Web.

Here’s one important way that you can: Buy a font. Send a message.

Maybe, like Mark Pilgrim, you would happily pay to use commercial fonts in the web sites you design, and you don’t believe upstanding web designers like you need a new file format to make you aware of the license terms that apply to fonts. If only those backward font foundries would take your money!

Well guess what: they will!

There are legal ways to use commercial fonts on the Web today; they just aren’t particularly convenient. Nevertheless, professional designers use solutions like sIFR and CSS image replacement to use commercial fonts on the Web every day.

The next time you design a site, use one of these techniques to demonstrate your willingness to support commercial fonts on the Web. Simply include a commercial font or two in your design, and make sure you buy a license to use those fonts. Once you have—and this is the important part—tell the world you did!

Include a colophon page on your site that lists the fonts you used, and states that they are fully licensed. Send an email to the designer or foundry that created the font and let them know you bought it to use in a web site design.

Most importantly, mention in your note that you would gladly pay an additional fee (a fair one) to use the existing OpenType version of the font file on your site, if they would only offer a license that allowed you to do so.

The good news in all this is that commercial font vendors are not the monolithic entity that many tirades like Mark Pilgrim’s make them out to be. Most of them are tiny studios with just a few designers who just want to design fonts and get paid to do it. We do not have to convince them all at once.

This is just one way to make a positive contribution to resolving a debate that has, sadly, to this point been dominated by negativity. Can you think of others?

  • Thomas Scholz

    The only efficient way to force some movement on the font foundry side is not to buy the fonts. Hacking around stupid licenses is like optimizing a web site for IE 4. No one cares.

  • I personally think they [the browser makers] need to let you link to a font in the same way you would do a favicon and then the user see’s this font but, unlike favicons, it doesn’t get saved to your computer just held in the cache.

  • Anonymous

    I’m not convinced by this summary of what is agreed to and what is not, though I’ve only glanced at this ongoing argument.

    You say the foundries just want the ability to embed a description of the license into a font. But you also say they don’t want DRM, so it would be a field solely for display to curious humans? When I look at a font it already has a copyright description; you’re saying the sole objection they have to TTF/OTF on the web is they want another text field, to add a line like “Permission is given for licensees to serve this font from a website” (or for foundries with more advanced web stores, “Permission is given to to serve this font from a website”)?

    You also mention a hypothetical file type for fonts on the web as though it’s a point already agreed on. I get the impression that the primary point of difference between all sides is the very question of whether and why such a format should be created at all.

    The foundries want a new format (let’s call it WTF for Web Type File), so that people won’t be able download the commercial, licensed fonts and use them in Word (since Word/Photoshop/etc. wouldn’t support WTF fonts). The web wants TTF/OTF. But what hope do foundries have of forcing designers to go through file format conversion to this hypothetical, protected, third format (or maintaining two separate copies of the same font in two different versions, one for authoring, and one for serving) instead of just uploading the OTF, if it’s the same thing to a browser? So the whole point of WTF fonts becomes moot if a browser supports an open format, which is why the foundries are fighting TTF/OTF.

    If the argument were just about whether they should add a license field to the next version of OpenType or whatever, there wouldn’t be any argument. Browsers would add support for TTF/OTF, the next version of OpenType would come out, and the foundries would sell fonts licensed for web use in OTF v1.7 only, so that they could add their little description of what the font is licensed for.

  • David Eldridge

    FWIW, Mark Pilgrim doesn’t seem to be “shouting from the sidelines.” He seems to have taken an active role in this, by working to provide fonts to people in a helpful way during his own work (as seen in his comments, where he linked to some of it). Though I, too, would have appreciated a toned-down title, since I sit behind a corporate firewall, and things like that get blocked.

  • mention in your note that you would gladly pay an additional fee (a fair one) to use the existing OpenType version of the font file on your site

    What? You think we should pay extra to use fonts on the web? Why should I pay more to use a font on my blog than a guy who’s using it to create a million-dollar ad campaign?

    If I buy a font, I want to use it wherever and whenever I want.

  • ricktheartist

    I agree with stopsatgreen. I am not going to pay more for a web font than I am for a print font. The whole fear of font vendors is that their product will get re-distributed to those that did not buy a license. Clearly any designer that is making a poster, takes his/her file to be printed must in some way include the font for the Service Bureau to print it (either embedded or linked). The point is that the Service Bureau is not legally allowed to use that font in other stuff, but they can use it in servicing their customer (view and print).

    So we really need to petition the browser makers to solve this, allowing the end users to see the font (just like people who walk by the printed poster get to see the font on it), users can even print the font (like taking a picture of the poster), but not install/use the font themselves.

    Then the font foundries should feel comfortable updating their licensing to the more open ended version like Adobe uses.

  • Jesse

    If it’s stored in cache it’s saved to your computer…

  • Dave Crossland

    Using fonts that cannot be freely shared or modified is unethical, I think.

  • Andrew

    I’m not going to try to address the licensing issue, instead I’d like to propose a better interim solution. Try cufon, it’s far superior to sIFR in terms of flexibility and accessibility (it even responds to basic CSS text properties). I probably wouldn’t use it for main copy but it’s great for headings and short runs of feature text.

  • Paul Annesley

    It’s a shame he chose to express his thoughts as an angry rant, because his tone undermines some important points.

    It’s never a shame when Mark Pilgrim chooses to express his thoughts in an angry masterful rant :)

  • Last time I looked at the licensing conditions on a font, they were nearly incomprehensible; but near as I could tell there was no definitely legal way to use them on a web server. It came back to technically questionable restrictions about “accessing” and “modifying” and “using” a font, then there were clauses about the number of users and how many processors in the host machine. My guess is the wording caters to networked computers in a design shop scenario.

    But that wording would still apply no matter who buys the font or how they use it; so when you host it on a multi-processor web server, available to the general public, all of them accessing the font and using the generated output… I certainly wouldn’t be confident that I wasn’t breaching the license conditions.

  • Henri Sivonen

    No, buying a font that you aren’t allowed to used as TTF/OTF in @font-face on the Web is the exact wrong thing to do. If you want to do something positive, buy a font license from a foundry that allows you to use the font as TTF/OTF in @font-face on the Web.

  • @Jesse

    I was meaning not installing it on your computer in your fonts directory, but just holding it for that session. That would get around copyright licenses.

  • Perhaps there is a technolgy so that designers can buy a licence, registered with a domain name.

    The idea is that a site actually calls a font sever so that fonts are served live. Only registered domains can pull those fonts.

    Then prevent these fonts from being cached- like some images cannot be opened in a new window.

    Does that make sense?

  • Perhaps there is a technolgy so that designers can buy a licence, registered with a domain name.

    So I would have to buy a license per domain? Unfair and expensive.

  • @stopsatgreen

    Agree, but what if you could place fonts on your personal domain, then link other sites back to your domain? Combined with Access-Control-Allow-Origin (on your domain, a.k.a. “font server”), you can have a font licensed to you once, and still have it on all of your sites.

    The only problem left in this case if the font itself would allow that. If there’s some format which can embed license information of this. I personally don’t care if it’s a new version of TTF/OTF, EOT, or a new format… I just want to use a damn font legally, in a cross user-agent (read: print AND browser) fashion, and have it as a real text (resizable, selectable and all).

    BTW, for what it’s worth – I hope we get SVG support in IE soon, along with support for SVG fonts (including the ability to embed SVG fonts in (X)HTML with CSS). Since SVG is “open source” to begin with, no licensing issues can really be imposed with it – if the font is created in this format, the font author implicitly accepts that the font is “free”.

  • dougoftheabaci

    The problem is I wouldn’t be willing to pay an additional fee to use their fonts on my site. I’m buying the fonts to design with. I’m not buying them for limited use. If they’re going to make a fuss I’m going to use free ones.

    As for sIFR or any other method, I won’t use that because it requires multiple technologies that might fail. As it stands I use Cufón because it allows me to use any font I want on any of the major browsers. But you know what? No commercial fonts. Fine.

    And this whole typographers’ position that free fonts can’t be good fonts is not always true. Also, contrary to what they’d like us to believe, I do not need 50 different faces. Four is usually sufficient: Regular, Italic, Bold, Bold Italic. Considering I usually have two different fonts in my designs that is quite sufficient.

    I think the type foundaries are going to be missing out. They’re another industry that’s refusing to keep up with the way their industry is going. Look what happened to the music industry when they tried to stop digital downloads. Not only did they fail but they ended up losing epic amounts of money in the process. Now that they’re playing the game they’re making it back.

  • Mikael

    This is absolutely stupid.
    How is the font business any different than the photo business. You don’t see the photo industry crying about how they need a new format here or a new field there. They just sell you stuff and when they do, they tell you to not redistribute it.


    If someone steals the photo from your site, they’re guilty, not you.

    I don’t understand why foundries think they’re so different or special. Copyrights are hard to apply, stop crying, deal with it and let us do what we want WITH FONTS WE FRICKING BUY !!!

  • Anonymous

    “…the commercial font vendors believe the new file format is needed, but are unable to develop it with the available time and money.”

    I don’t buy it. If foundries/designers don’t move soon, then they’re going to basically lose online control of all fonts for the foreseeable future, which will decimate their businesses. If they pay the up-front costs now, they will instantly create a new, growing, sustainable revenue stream.

    The only way for this to become a win-win situation is for font foundries/designers to invest the up-front cost to save their own business. Microsoft, Mozilla, Opera, Apple, graphic designers, and consumers are not going to invest to save the foundry companies, that’s completely ridiculous.

  • Font foundries are already on the losing end of the proposition. I’m no expert in the field by any stretch, but from what I understand, virtually no one is making any real money designing and selling fonts. If you’re a foundry, you’re either making some money licensing fonts to Adobe, Apple, or whatever corporate concern is buying fonts, or you’re out there on your own, making a little money for a lot of painstaking work. It’s certainly a losing proposition, considering the time, effort, and aesthetics that go into a well-designed original font. Most font/typographical designers do what they do as labors of love, not for big bucks.

  • Anonymous

    > there should be a convenient way to license
    > commercial fonts for use on the Web

    I have already been using commercial fonts on the Web for over 10 years. They are all licensed, and very carefully, because they become part of the work I make.

    The fact that I can now link to the font instead of burning it into an image with Photoshop HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH THE LICENSING. The fact that I can now link to the font instead of capturing its vectors as a Flash class HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH THE LICENSING. I have 10 years of documents, and each one has a little font list associated with it. Those documents will continue to have that font list attached to them for the rest of time. I don’t care if we have quantum computers and microwave Internet directly into our brains 20 years from now, the document I made back in 2005 will still have the same font list I chose for it in 2005.

    I bought and paid for the rights to use all of the fonts in my personal collection in all of my creative projects. When I sit down to make a new document, I can choose from any of the fonts in my legally licensed collection — bought and paid for — that is the whole point of having a font collection.

    The fact that we have MISSED OUT ON 10 YEARS OF FONT LINKING AT LEAST ALREADY because of the whining out of the foundries the last time we tried this in 1998 or so (both Netscape 4 and IE 4 can embed a font, but neither used the same font format and neither used TrueType) and have spent POTENTIALLY BILLIONS OF DOLLARS WORTH OF GRAPHIC DESIGNER AND PRODUCTION ARTISTS HOURS burning fonts into images all this time, and the fact that people have been looking at Verdana and Arial and Geneva in BILLIONS OF DOCUMENTS for the last decade means that we have already messed up really badly and THERE IS NO TIME TO WASTE TO RESTORE TYPOGRAPHY TO THE WEB.

    So I second the notion of “fuck the foundries”, and I think the sentiment and the cursing is completely appropriate. The number of fonts I license has gone down steadily over the past 10 years along with the amount of money I put into font foundries. Now, I’m ready to add many new fonts to my collection because I’m working in HTML 5 and Flash 9 and they both have fonts, so I’m ready for a renaissance. To hear typographers COMPLAIN in the face of people WANTING TO START USING THEIR WORK MORE BROADLY AGAIN is just too much. Foundries have acted like spoiled brats for over a decade while for example, CD turned to MP3, which turned to MP4 with DRM, and then to MP4 without DRM. In music, we’re going to lossless within a few years. Where are the foundries?

    Sheer stupidity, all of this. Asking me to pay again for my fonts after SUFFERING THROUGH THIS PAST LOST DECADE OF TYP0GRAPHY ON THE WEB is just too much. Typographers need to STFU and MAKE FONTS! They should be complaining to Microsoft that their text rendering is not professional standard, not complaining to creative people that the world can’t be turned back on its axis by 20 years.

  • Jest

    There should be the ability to use free fonts as well as paid fonts. Otherwise your demoting people’s ability to communicate based on their wallet size. The web is meant to be open for the whole world not just the elites. Many aspects of it continue to grow toward that end. Drm fonts and silly formats that only allow paid fonts are directly against the open nature of the web.

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