Falling Leaves: the Ardes blog

Font-Face Use and Foundries

Ray Drainville

Using innovative typography on websites is close to my heart. But its development has been sluggish at best, due in part to the virtually non-existent actions of font foundries. Their inaction is in part understandable: the licensing issues aren’t easy & naturally enough foundries don’t want to give up being paid for what they do, because if a font is on a website, chances are that you can rip it off. Even if you use something like Cufon, which is a pretty cool-looking, Javascript-based encoded siFR alternative, you’re likely to be able to re-engineer the font.

It’s tempting to view font foundries—like Adobe—as big, faceless monolithic corporations who have their own profits in mind, not the use of their fonts in innovative ways. But the truth is that they’re usually quite small & by ripping them off you’re hurting “the little guy”. So how do you resolve this issue? Well, in an interesting interview between Jeffrey Zeldman & the Font Bureau’s David Berlow, Berlow suggests creating a new table for fonts which defines permissions for online usage. On the face of it, this sounds like a decent idea, but the problem is it’s an idea that’s come far, far too late: that particular horse has bolted. Foundries should have closed that gate back in, oh, 1990.

Which is where Dive Into Mark’s foundry screed comes in. Unlike many screeds, it’s really worth reading because he makes very cogent, stark points. For one, Berman’s permissions table suggestion would break every font-consuming application on every platform on every computer on Earth. Mark also points to the future:

Dynamic web fonts are coming. Actually they’re already here, but most of Our People haven’t noticed yet. But they will, and that’s going to be a huge boon to somebody. I see you’ve decided that it won’t be you. Well, have fun shuffling your little bits of metal around. The rest of us will be over here, using the only fonts we’re allowed to use: Everything But Yours.

Mark’s point is really important: by defining some licensing in the most boneheaded manner possible (really simple example: not allowing some fonts be embeded in PDFs), type foundries have shot themselves in the foot. Unless they change—and fast—they’re going to be left behind.

Here we see some really close (and obvious) parallels with the machinations of the music industry, the movie industry & even the newspaper industry. All of these “content owners” (and isn’t that a generic expression) are so paranoid about “giving away” their work that they’re earning the enmity of anyone who comes into contact with them. And like the music, movie & newspaper industries, I suspect that type foundries are going to see their business models change dramatically—and they’ll not have had the initiative to have a hand in that change.