Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Font Creators Need To Make Up Their Minds - Fast - About Fonts on the Web

Last week I attended a one-day conference on "The Business of Type" organized by the Font Designers' Rights Coalition - a body which concerns itself with helping to ensure font designers' IP is protected and they get the proper return for the investment they make in time and expertise.

As anyone who reads this blog will know, it's a goal I strongly support.

I was a little disappointed that at least some of the designers who spoke still seemed "stuck in the 20th Century", and more concerned about graphics and print service bureaux keeping and using illicit copies of their custom fonts which they'd received from customers to output their print jobs, than the potential threat the Web poses to their future unless they act quickly.

Talk about not seeing the wood for the trees! While that is an issue, it's totally dwarfed by the risk to font IP from the Web, and especially the proposal from the Opera browser folks to the WorldWideWeb Consortium (W3C) that Web designers should be able to point to any font put up on a server as a raw font file.

In public, the Open Source folks will confirm that they know this means web designers can use only freeware fonts (most of which aren't very good, because they haven't had the time and money invested in them).

But like a lot of the Open Source statements, it's impossible not to get the impression that what they really mean is "wink,wink - we know you'll copy commercial fonts up there and our proposal will let you do that, but we can't say so in public".

A large proportion of them believe that fonts, like all other software, should be free, and this proposal would erode font value in no time.

Today, the font industry does a pretty good job of policing font piracy. If you put commercial fonts up on a server for illegal sale, it's almost certain they'll find them and take action, first with "cease and desist" letters and later if necessary with stronger measures.

But if fonts begin to be routinely put up on servers in much greater numbers to service millions of Web pages, the policing system will break down because it's not set up to handle issues on that sort of scale.

Our friend Thomas Phinney from Adobe also spoke at the conference. He unveiled data from a survey Adobe just completed which made it clear that web designers want to be able to use the fonts they know and love for print - in other words, commercial fonts - and not freeware ones. At the same time, Tom had encouraging data which showed that most designers understood the value of font IP, would be very reluctant or completely opposed to pirating fonts, and wanted a system which would make it easy for them to do the right thing.

I think we're all indebted to Thomas and Adobe for carrying out this study.

The font industry hasn't really helped matters with its attitude so far. Microsoft has had a reasonably secure Internet font embedding technology in Internet Explorer for more than a decade, but many font houses don't allow their fonts to be used in this way because of paranoia about the risk to their IP of fonts being used on the Web. Then again, we made mistakes, too. We kept it a proprietary Microsoft format instead of opening it up as a Web standard (a mistake we've now rectified).

We had a good, lively discussion at the conference. I pointed out that failing to speak out against the "raw fonts on a server" proposal could well lead the industry down a dark and dangerous road. If they did not oppose this measure and adopt and support a reasonable alternative, they might find that they ended up in the worst of all possible worlds, in which fonts become free.

Once a font is posted on a server, anyone can point to it - or even worse, download it and use it on their computer system. Our Embedded OpenType (EOT) technology was designed to put obstacles in the way of people casually pirating fonts in this way just because it's so easy.

Some of the font designers who spoke still seemed to have this quaint idea that their customers were the "printing and publishing industry". While that may have been true in the past, the reality is that now, with the Web and email, everyone's a publisher. Instead of a (substantial in size but proportionally small) subset, there are a billion potential customers out there - if the font industry can figure out how to support them in the right way.

Fonts on the Web need to behave just like fonts for print. If I'm a designer of a magazine, for instance, I can buy one legal copy of a font, and use it to create as many copies or editions of that magazine as I like. Everyone who reads that magazine gets to "use" the copy of the font it contains - no matter if the magazine sells millions of copies.

It should work just the same on the Web. If a website designer buys a legitimate copy of a font, he or she should be able to use it on their site, and everyone who visits that site ought to be able to read it in the typeface the designer specified. But they shouldn't be able to use that font in any other task or document on their own computer system, unless they themselves buy a legitimate copy.

You can't do that today. There's no standard system for "embedding" a font in a webpage. The only way a reader will see it - unless you use one of the "common" webfonts - is if they have an actual copy of that font on their own machine. That's the issue EOT embedding was designed to address.

This needs to get fixed soon - before fonts go the same way as digital music, and the font industry hits the same problems with which the music industry is now struggling.

There's bound to be a way of leveraging the needs of a billion publishers into a decent return on investment. High volume, low cost is the business model on which Microsoft was founded, and we haven't done so badly. Maybe the font industry needs to take a leaf out of that book.

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