Share On:

Font Freedom

I carry the internet around in my pocket on a device that rivals a calculator in size. I can pull up a map of the nearest restaurants and gas stations with a few swipes of my finger. My television now tells me who is on the other end of a ringing phone. If my flight status changes, I get a text message from my Airline letting me know I have time to stop for that large double-shot.  I could go on about all the technical challenges we have overcome in the last decade, but I’d prefer to discuss one that still lingers:

If I am going to build a website to render reliably, I’m limited to Arial, Helvetica, Verdana, Georgia and a handful of other fonts.

Let’s face it. We struggle to explain the idea of web fonts to clients. The idea that they can’t choose any typeface they wish to convey their marketing message does not compute. We are speaking to executives that are used to seeing stylized Powerpoint slideshows, business managers that choose from hundreds of fonts in their word processors for daily reports, marketing departments that manipulate stylized type in Photoshop every day. It seems ludicrous even for those of us in the industry that we still have to jump through hoops for typography. There is a reason web designers and developers have been so frustrated. At its core, this simply isn’t a technical challenge. It’s a business issue that relates to rights management. Font rendering has been solved since the early days of the web. The problem is, type foundries, the companies that design the fonts we know and love, are for-profit businesses. In current implementations, browsers leave fonts unprotected when used in the wild.  Without some method for licensing fonts and preventing them from being downloaded and shared freely, the foundries could potentially see themselves in the same boat as the music industry.

Developers have not been standing by idly. Several stand-in measures have been taken to circumvent this hardship:

Shaun Inman created sIFR as a method for replacing text with a combination of Flash and JavaScript. Through the work of Mike Davidson and others, it saw three incarnations and had a long run in the design world.  It has two major drawbacks; it is intended to be used sparingly (not for full body text) and it is cumbersome to use.

Cufón is an attempt to take the efforts of sIFR in a new direction. It relies solely on Javascript and does not have a Flash plugin requirement. It is fast enough to work for large amounts of text, and takes significantly less setup time on the part of the designer/developer to get running. There are a few shortcomings. The most notable is that text-selection is not supported. Both sIFR and Cufón toArialalso suffer from copyright issues as they conflict with foundry license agreements in most cases.

There is one exception to the rule. Before Internet Explorer 4, Microsoft proposed a rights-managed format called Embedded Opentype. It prevents visitors to websites from copying and distributing fonts that they have not payed for, and has been supported in every MS browser since. In 2008, they even brought it to the W3C, a standards body for web technologies, and granted them the rights and licenses necessary to bring it to every browser. According to the Fonts Working Group, EOT or another comparable spec should make its way into a W3C Recommendation some time around the first quarter of 2010. Many of the foundries support Microsoft’s efforts. The problem? DRM (Digital Rights Management) is a dirty word in the computer world. Forming a new standard brings with it legal issues, implementation issues, and competitive issues between browser vendors. It is yet to be seen if any of the other browsers will implement EOT. The latest versions of Safari, Firefox, and Opera seem to be heading in a different direction with adoption of the @font-face declaration and direct downloads.

The implementation of @font-face also puts an increased level of pressure on type foundries.  A new generation of web developers are going to have a lower barrier of entry to copyright violation. Through a culmination of this back and forth between foundries, browsers, and the developer community, it seems that we are about to see a big change in 2009/2010. In just the last few weeks we have seen a number of proposals trying to reach compromises in this space:

Richard Fink has published a format called EOT Lite which removes some of the concerns raised by browser parties involved in forming a standard.

A method for adding permissions tables to OpenType was made by David Berlow of the Font Bureau.

Tal Leming and Erik van Blokland have proposed a format called .webfont that is seeing some positive feedback from foundries.

How it will all play out is unknown at this point, but it does seem as though the industry is taking steps in a positive direction.

There is also the possibility that another independent team will bridge the gap. Jeffrey Veen has been spearheading an initiative with his company Small Batch Inc to bring a product called TypeKit to market. TypeKit is a platform for delivering real fonts to web pages in a way that targets the nuances of the specific browser a website visitor is using.  It avoids DRM, and includes free and commercial fonts that foundries have licensed specifically for this purpose. If it delivers on what it promises, it is sure to be a popular destination among the design crowd.

It has been a long road to true web typography, but for the first time the end may be in sight. And that is something we won’t have to celebrate in Arial.

Share Article