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Typeface Piracy & the Web

September 08, 2003

Interesting news item from much as the BSA (Business Software Alliance) audits large companies in efforts to police their respective members’ licensing policies, now large type foundries like Agfa Monotype, Linotype and more are beginning to crack down on illegal usage of their products.

Feedback on this news is, expectedly, largely negative. Nobody likes the heavy hand of enforcement, but fonts suffer the same false impression that software still does: they are easily copied, so they must be value-less.

Type foundries have a unique weapon on their side, as do any institutions producing creative materials with the intent of re-use by the purchaser (ie. stock photography & illustration providers) — the resulting work, by nature, is highly visible. In fact, it’s unsuccessful if it’s not. Lawsuits will no doubt abound from publicly-spotted work.

The question, then, is how does this apply to the limited set we take for granted daily? Web typography is restricted to the small subset of mostly cross-platform fonts that Microsoft bestowed upon us over half a decade ago: Arial, Courier, Georgia, Times New Roman, Trebuchet MS, and Verdana. (Of course, there are also Comic Sans MS, Impact, and Webdings if you’re into that sort of thing)

It looks like the answer is that it doesn’t. Their core web fonts package (which, incidentally is no longer available from Microsoft on the grounds that ‘all the fonts within are included in Microsoft products anyway’) shipped with licensing terms that are refreshingly generous. The FAQ states: Designers can specify the fonts within their Web pages.. The EULA states: You may install and use an unlimited number of copies of the SOFTWARE PRODUCT.

We can conclude that no restrictions governing use existed at the time of distribution. Whether this changes in subsequent releases is yet to be determined; it could happen. For now though, our core web fonts are still free for all to use.

Reader Comments

MikeyC says:
September 08, 08h

Dave: “the resulting work, by nature, is highly visible. In fact, itís unsuccessful if itís not. Lawsuits will no doubt abound from publicly-spotted work.”

I was under the impression that “knock-off” fonts easily skirt any legal issues. Isn’t this the reason Arial exists?

I think you’d have to be a fairly sloppy “typeface pirate” to get caught.

Dave S. says:
September 08, 08h

MikeyC - traditionally, yes, derivative work was pretty open to interpretation. Recent years have seen far tighter control of this, and if Arial had happened in 2002 instead of – what was it, 1982? – then things would be a whole lot different right now.

My point was more specifically addressing those who use unlicensed typefaces in their work. For example, were I to download Caslon and publish a book in it, then it’s indisputable proof I used a licensable work.

Matt says:
September 08, 12h

The core web fonts are still freely available, . Microsoft Typography ( ) seems to be the most non-evil of their departments and consistently provides good information and products.

Dave S. says:
September 08, 12h

Thanks Matt, I’ve changed that to read ‘…from Microsoft’

Their typography department always has interesting things going on, and most everything they offer is free to use.

September 09, 05h

I think that people need to remember that fonts may just seem like another file on your hard disk, but they’re “intellectual property.” Just as you wouldn’t steal a real item from a store, you shouldn’t steal a font – it really is the same thing.

September 09, 12h

As some of you masy know, Bitstream has released the Vera family of fonts under an open source license which permits, under some conditions, derivative works. Download and licensing specifics are available here:

Font samples for this elegant family are here:

Perhaps this will provide a springboard for further quality open source development?

September 12, 06h

Kristopher: “Bitstream has released the Vera family of fonts”…

Unfortunately, as pretty as these are (and I do use them), they are sadly lacking in a large number of Unicode characters. This makes them a lot less useful in real world contexts.

The microsoft core web fonts do a very good job of supporting Unicode.


Dave S. says:
September 12, 10h

Vera is a great set. The Unicode thing could be a problem, but it’s an amazingly prohibitive amount of work to create a completely unified typeface across the thousands and thousands of characters. Not many typeface designers buy into the open-source ethos either.

I figure the problem with adopting Vera is more on the distribution end - Microsoft’s core fonts caught on because they were installed with every copy of Windows and Office from 9x? up. Vera doesn’t have that kind of support yet - perhaps it will catch on with Linux users, but that’s no kind of market share to be considered for viable use on the web.

September 12, 11h

Me, I’m eagerly awaiting the appearance of the STIX fonts ( ). I don’t know much about what they’ll look like (“Times”-like could describe a lot of things), but they will be high quality, comprehensive (6,220 glyphs) and free.

For me, the big win will be a unified set of fonts with all the mathematical symbols that currently stick out like sore thumbs (if they render at all in your browser) on my blog.

jon says:
September 15, 10h

perhaps the *real* problem is that of people assigning far too much value to what the produce.

although admittedly i have the opposite problem.

at least i’ll die happy. ;)