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malevolent design weblog

This blog is now defunct, but you can find more stuff over at my personal site

“We don’t serve your type here”

I’ve been following the issue of web font embedding almost as long as I’ve been designing web pages. IE4 introduced Embedded OpenType, but its restrictions and lack of broader browser support held it back (I did use it for a couple of sites a long time ago). More recently, browsers have started adopting @font-face in a way that allows unencumbered embedding of ordinary TrueType files, something most font foundries are rather unhappy about.

In the last few days I’ve read a font-related interview on A List Apart, a type designer’s view of the options, and Mark Pilgrim’s tactful verdict. Like Mark, I’ve been clarifying my thoughts and for me it breaks down into two key aspects.

How do fonts compare with other files on the web?

No DRM, and few copy-protection measures applied by sites, yet stock photo libraries are happy to sell images. Some do include invisible watermarks, allowing for easier detection of infringements.
Audio files
MP3s etc. can be freely served/linked, but most file-sharing takes place outside of the open web as it’s relatively easy to detect. After wasting years pursuing various DRM schemes, music companies have finally accepted that DRM-free files are the only viable way to compete with copying.
Video files
Browsers don’t apply any restrictions, and most Flash-based videos can be downloaded, but the various plugins often use streaming and/or DRM.
Flash files
Authors can apply some anti-copying measures (e.g. to make it harder to embed a game in another site), but browsers allow SWFs to be freely downloaded.
Text content
Anyone can copy/save ordinary text-based content on the web.
The very code that constitutes the display layer of the web is wide open. View Source has always been a core feature of web browsers and I don’t know anyone who would want it any other way.

There’s a clear pattern — plugins can and do apply usage restrictions, but browsers don’t. That approach goes all the way back to Tim Berners-Lee and has been a key part of the web’s success.

Are fonts so different from every other file type that they deserve unique ‘protected species’ status? No. I haven’t seen anyone make a decent case for such special treatment.

What effect will embedding have on the market?

Fonts are already widely copied, and (aside from those bundled with software) are only purchased by honest, reputable graphic designers. However honest and reputable the industry may or may not be, it’s a small market, and anyone who wants to get fonts for free can easily do so.

Unrestricted font embedding would certainly lead to many sites using fonts without permission, but their creators wouldn’t be font buyers anyway. By persuading/compelling some of them to buy licences the target market could only grow, and there’s currently zero revenue from web fonts.

Many web designers are itching to spend their clients’ money on good fonts. If a broad selection was available then I’d happily budget something like £50-200 per site for fonts, in the same way I’ll happily spend money on images or sounds where needed.

It’s clear that most browser developers have also concluded that fonts don’t merit unique protections, and DRM-free embedding is growing in support at long last. The font foundries can choose to accept new revenue to offset any negative side-effects, or follow the example of the music companies by wasting time and money while their market dwindles.

I think I’m mostly in agreement with Mark on this one, so, er… Friday the foundries.


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