Falling Leaves: the Ardes blog

Font-Face Heats Up

July 20th, 2009

Ray Drainville

I spent last week shivering away with the Swine Flu. It wasn’t fun; but I knew something was coming & accordingly shut down jobs until I felt better, notifying the clients of the issue. This is planning: you do it because you know what’s coming.

Whilst convalescing, I read a fascinating discussion over on Jeffrey Zeldman’s blog. In this article, Zeldman publicised the fact that David Berlow of the Fount Bureau was proposing a new permissions table to OpenType. The idea is to be able to embed fonts into websites via @font-face whilst protecting the foundries from piracy. A permissions table would stop the font from, say, being downloaded & used elsewhere. Currently, only Microsoft’s EOT format allows for any protection from misusing the technology; it’s been around since 1997 (and it feels like it). Safari (for some time), Firefox (as of 3.5) & Opera (as of 10) support standard, naked type formats: Firefox 3.5 has just been released & Opera 10 will be released any day now. One may assume this is why there’s a sudden flurry of activity from foundries about the subject.

The name “David Berlow” may be familiar to you: he was interviewed in A List Apart back in April, where he started making this permissions idea & I wrote about that interview, and some of the reaction to it. Mark Pilgrim smacked it down pretty thoroughly, and with good cause: Mr Berlow’s suggestion would require that every computer on earth be altered. Not to mention virtually every font as well.

This isn’t the only problem, however. In the comments to Zeldman’s article I pointed out that it’s far too late for foundries to make such proposals: all modern browsers now support @font-face. To expand upon what I wrote there, the time for making these proposals should have been made back at least in 1998, when the @font-face was definitely part of the W3C’s CSS2 specification. And remember, if 1998 is the date of the recommendation, you can be goddamn sure that they were talking about it for years beforehand.

I apparently irked Berlow. He became quite defensive that until recently, foundries didn’t know how browser vendors would deal with fonts; and moreover, like other industries, he just wants to protect his IP. At first I thought that, in my feverish state, I had been a dick, but looking back, he simply didn’t get what I was saying. No matter the mechanism by which a browser deals with a font, @font-face has been with us for over a fucking decade. Foundries have had plenty of time to do something about it.

The best scenario for some sort of “webfont”, protected format would be to strongarm all the browser vendors into supporting it; suppress all the browsers out there that now support naked fonts; update every browser with webfont-“enabled” (one might say DRM-crippled) versions; and then hope for the best. Good luck with that. Let me reiterate what I’ve said before: this horse has long since bolted. If the foundries have pursued actions, they’ve been very slow and, worse, ineffective.

And as for Berlow’s concern about protecting his IP: well, they’ve had at least a decade to think about how to do this. A less charitable man than myself might think they were hoping this whole “fonts on the web” thing would just go away. Instead, they should have planned for this: full @font-face support was coming, and they knew it.

So bring on TypeKit. Where of course you’ll rent & not simply pay for the fonts you use. I have sympathy when people want to protect their IP, but Jesus H. Christ in a chicken basket, they’ll do anything to stop use from being straightforward.