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Here we'll explore the nexus of legal rulings, Capitol Hill policy-making, technical standards development, and technological innovation that creates -- and will recreate -- the networked world as we know it. Among the topics we'll touch on: intellectual property conflicts, technical architecture and innovation, the evolution of copyright, private vs. public interests in Net policy-making, lobbying and the law, and more.

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August 19, 2009

Typekit Promises to Unravel Font-Linking Rights

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Posted by Alan Wexelblat

First, a bit of background - bear with me here. It's an ongoing frustration for Web designers to try and get the things that show up on peoples' screens to look like what the designer wants. I vividly remember going to visit a customer who complained that my product looked terrible on her screen and discovering that she had somehow jiggered her Web browser settings to map the colors I had chosen into some hideous chemical green and pink.

For most of the history of the Web, designers have fought to take back control of the appearance of their product through techniques such as embedding text in images or using other technologies such as Flash that permit much more rigid and detailed settings than most browsers' HTML. Unfortunately these technologies tend to produce bad user experiences by being inaccessible to blind users, taking a long time to load, requiring constant updating of plug-ins, and so on. Over the past few years, the evolution of CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) has allowed designers to do more of what they want without locking up their content. Most critically, freeing text makes page indexing more accurate, which helps findability.

One of the more recent additions to the CSS arsenal has been the ability to link to a specific display font. Without such links the designer is at the mercy of whatever fonts are loaded into the user's browser. Depending on the browser is at best an imperfect solution as fonts may be missing or have bugs in them. If you want your HTML-encoded text to be properly read everywhere by everyone, the best bet is to say "render it in THAT font" and then test the heck out of it to make sure it works.

Unfortunately, even linking to just the font you want may not work. Many fonts - even those that are supposed to be released for free use - do not contain correct licensing terms for redistribution. In comes Typekit, with a promise to provide fonts with a consistent license arrangement. It does depend on using JavaScript to access their library and request the fonts, which is a small drawback, but the ability to design Web content without tripping over more DRM is a big payoff.

(Full disclosure: Jeffrey Veen and I overlapped in time at the MIT Media Lab. I did not speak to him for this article.)

Comments (16) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Tech


COMMENTS

1. Richard Fink on August 19, 2009 2:10 PM writes...

As a web developer and blogger, I have been tracking the issue of Web Fonts very closely and I recognized it as primarily an intellectual property conflict early on.
Typekit (lower "k" in the name), is just one of several font services companies - Kernest and Typotheque being two others - that have emerged now that a new generation of browsers have arrived that support linking to font files.
I have met personally with Jeffrey Veen's partners Bryan Mason and Ryan Carver and have the utmost respect for their abilities. I have no doubt that on a technical level Typekit will deliver.
The controversy now is about what the cost of these services are going to be and why web authors would need to turn to middlemen for something like this in the first place.
Personally, my feeling is that the further away web authoring gets from being a "do-it-yourself" proposition, the worse off society is.

There is general agreement - even by those behind the font service firms - that they are providing a "necessary evil" of sorts: a path less troublesome for some web authors to take while browser makers and font producers work out the specifics of a solution that makes font designers more comfortable with allowing their work to be posted on web servers. Font service firms like Typekit can aid greatly during this transitional period.
Be aware that there are many openly licensed fonts - Kernest's library is made up of almost exclusively "free" fonts - and the technical difficulty in preparing them for use in web page is not great.
Talks between font vendors, designers and browser makers are proceeding and progress has been made.

Richard Fink

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2. DrWex on August 19, 2009 5:45 PM writes...

Thanks for that perspective and the links.

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3. Joe Clark on August 19, 2009 6:34 PM writes...

You aren’t being intellectually honest here. Copyfight should by rights be opposing any measure that restricts “fair” use of copyrighted works, which clearly includes typesetting Web pages, does it not? Why are you advocating marginally less draconian restrictions on what you would otherwise be arguing for – unfettered usage of fonts? Aren’t they in the great cultural commons? The creative commons? Aren’t there only so many ways to design an A or a dollar sign anyway?

Why are you arguing in favour of restrictions on typeface usage? If you want to be consistent, I mean.

In any event, font licensing is a matter of contract law, not copyright; as typeface designs are not copyrightable in the U.S., andyou may or may not be duplicating the underlying outline-font file. You may have agreed, as by clickwrap EULA, to certain contractual requirements, but calling those requirements “copyright” is a stretch.

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4. Richard Fink on August 19, 2009 6:38 PM writes...

You're quite welcome, DrWex.
I've subscribed via RSS to Copyfight for some time and have always been impressed by the range and quality here.
Your blog's practical "let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater" approach to the reform of IP law is very much in keeping with my own line of thought.
My new blog, Readable Web, is devoted to the problems we face as reading is transformed by the move of words from print to the networked screen.
Copyright law and IP in general pose big, big problems, problems that call for thoughtful solutions not sloganeering.
I have added Copyfight to the "Linkworthy" blogroll on my site and have started writing a post announcing it that I'll publish in a day or so.
If Copyfight has a policy of reciprocity, I'd be delighted to have RW listed. If not, that's OK, too.
Keep shining the light.

Regards, Richard Fink

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5. Richard Fink on August 19, 2009 7:37 PM writes...

@joe clark

Joe,
I'm not quite following your reasoning here.
If there is no copyright protection, why would anyone bother with a licensing contract? What rights am I licensing?
Just lend me your font collection, please, and that's the end of it.
Yes, I know fonts exist in a kind of legal netherworld because typefaces can't be copyrighted but yet font designers contend that fonts are full copyrightable software products.
(This is one part about Fonts that makes it interesting legally.)
I do know that "fonts-are-software" has been tested in court at least once. I don't have the name of the case but it was brought by Adobe.
Thomas Phinney who used to be with Adobe but is now with Extensis would be able to tell you the case.
Adobe won. But like most cases of this nature, it's hardly a sweeping precedent.

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6. Joe Clark on August 19, 2009 10:19 PM writes...

I think you’re evading the reasoning because you haven’t actually reasoned through it.

If you’re a copyfighter, why are you not arguing for absolutely unfettered access to the cultural works we call typefaces? Why are you advocating watered-down copyright protection buttressed by hazy contract law? How is this in any respect different from defending DRM, for example?

Don’t you actually want all cultural works freed from the shackles of copyright? Especially computer files, since they inhabit a digital world in which copying will never become more difficult? Aren’t font files just like MP3 files?

Have you even thought of any of these contradictions?

If Disney were behind TypeKit instead of a guy you went to college with, wouldn’t you be full-bore against it?

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7. Richard Fink on August 20, 2009 7:40 AM writes...

@joe clark

I think your last question is aimed more at the original post by Alan Wexler ("If Disney etc...") and whatever policy it is you perceive this site or Wexler advocates.
Speaking for myself, I argue and advocate for none of the things you listed as simplistic either/or propositions.
And if Disney were behind Typekit (lower case "k"), it might be good thing because the Typekit user interface would then probably feature all of those great Disney cartoon characters we've all come to know and love!

Ciao, Rich

Permalink to Comment

8. Dan T. on August 20, 2009 9:17 AM writes...

I'm of the school of thought that favors using logically structured, platform independent Web designs that don't break down miserably if they're displayed in the "wrong" font because a user is using a different browser, operating system, screen resolution, or set of user preferences than I expected.

I'm also rather conservative in use of such problematic frills as non-ASCII characters (if I'm not writing in a language that requires them); inserting stuff like so-called "smart quotes" is a minefield of potential issues, as seen in the above comments by Joe Clark, where, at least in my browser (Firefox under Vista) the apostrophes come out as messy sequences of other characters.

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9. DrWex on August 20, 2009 11:01 AM writes...

Joe: I'm not sure I understand your charge of intellectual dishonesty. Since Copyfight is me these days (the other writers have long since moved on) I think I can be pretty definitive on what Copyfight's policies are. Those include a philosophy that DRM is bad and that alternatives should be promoted. What Typekit and its ilk are doing seems to be in line with that.

As other commenters have noted, fonts exist in a weird legal gray space. Such spaces are inherently hostile to use because people like certainty. Whether it's the certainty of "if someone uses this, I'll get paid" or the certainty of "if someone uses this I won't get sued even though I'm not making a buck off it." To the degree that we can all agree on a regime for font reuse and sharing I think that's a positive.

If Disney, or another member of the Cartel, was behind Typekit I would inherently be more suspicious because those entities have shown themselves willing to use every legal (and some extra-legal) means to lock up content. Veen is not just "some guy I went to college with" - he's a person who has been active on the Web for a couple decades and has a well-known public record that anyone who cares to search will be able to find. If Veen has cred, it's cred he's earned.

Finally, Dan T points to a very important distinction, which I skirted in my original post: Web design vs The Web(tm). It's true that for the vast majority of Web content, the specific font used is irrelevant. But designers and artists create works in all media - including on the Web - that are intended to be experienced in specific ways. Typography is an important part of visual design, whether it's posters, CD covers, or (certain) Web pages. Part of the point of the CSS project is to allow designers much more compatibility and control within the open framework of HTML. I imagine an interior designer might get similarly upset if someone said "Well, we're not going to use those nice Aeron chairs you designed. We'll just give people flimsy plastic folding chairs. After all, a chair is a chair, right?"

Oh and for those who care, my last name is "Wexelblat" not Wexler. Fun factoid: if you Google 'Wexelblat' every hit you get back is me or someone I'm one-step related to.

Permalink to Comment

10. Richard Fink on August 20, 2009 12:52 PM writes...

Sorry, Wexelblat.
One of my old chums from Brooklyn NY is named David Wechsler, who went on to become a very successful classical flute player with a major orchestra. Remarking to myself about the alternate spelling of "x" versus "chs" had him popping into my thoughts the other day and I blended his name with yours - Freud lives!

BTW - I'm with Dan T as far as keeping "graceful degradation" firmly in mind.

Permalink to Comment

11. DrWex on August 24, 2009 10:23 AM writes...

It's OK. The old adage about "all publicity is good; just make sure they spell your name right". The name used to be Wechselblatt anyway - long story.

One final point on "graceful degredation": I think this highlights an inherent conflict between peoples' experiences of the Web as an information resource and designers' use of the Web as a medium for creative expression. What, for example, is the 'graceful degredation' of your experience viewing a painting on a museum wall, if someone was to use the wrong or no light to illuminate that painting? I would say the question is nonsense - the artist creates the painting and it's presented in a context with the proper technological support. Likewise, a Web page should be presented with the correct technological support.

Permalink to Comment

12. Richard Fink on August 24, 2009 10:55 AM writes...

@DrWex

"I would say the question is nonsense - the artist creates the painting and it's presented in a context with the proper technological support. Likewise, a Web page should be presented with the correct technological support."

I happen to agree. Having to concern oneself with a concept like "graceful degradation" *is* nonsensical. But the web is a new medium. And lack of "proper technological support" seems to be the price we are (hopefully temporarily) paying for keeping things open and free and NOT under the control of one entity.
When I did intranet work for a government agency some years ago, all I had to deal with was Internet Explorer 6 as a vehicle. No variables. No thoughts of "graceful degradation". I had complete control within the limits imposed by that one browser.
And I, too, have wondered what Picasso's "Guernica" might look like gracefully degraded. (Hah!)

Lastly - I've added a blogroll link and a mention in today's post at Readable Web.
Let's keep at it, eh?

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13. Dan T. on August 24, 2009 12:08 PM writes...

Even on intranets, tying it to a specific browser and platform is shortsighted; it could end up locking the site into an outdated platform even after it's long obsolete, or force your successor developers to spend a lot of time and effort upgrading it for forward compatibility later. I make a point of making all my sites (internal or external) non-platform-specific.

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14. Richard Fink on August 26, 2009 7:50 PM writes...

@dan

I'm all for writing to standards. But we've still got some years to go before that becomes a reliable proposition.
There is still way too much variation among browsers. I'm hopeful, though.

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15. Richard Fink on October 9, 2009 6:49 PM writes...

DrWex:
Apropos of fonts and possible IP abuse:
Check this out - a complaint by a leading font design studio against NBC:
http://cityfile.com/dailyfile/7508

My orig source and some illuminating commentary here:
http://typophile.com/node/62884

Cheers, Rich

Permalink to Comment

16. Richard Fink on March 25, 2010 7:17 PM writes...

Dr. Wex:
Since you covered Typekit, this one might interest you.
Typekit And Copyright Fraud, Say It Ain't So.
I believe there's good intentions there, but it's a slippery slope and it's hard to prevent sliding.
Regards, Rich

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