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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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October 21, 2010

WOFF Proposal Looks Set To Solve Web Font Issues

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Posted by Alan Wexelblat

I've written before about the way that intellectual property and sharing concerns have held back the use of different typographic styles on the Web. It looks like the long impasse may be about to end.

A Copyfight reader sent me a pointer to an entry in The Economist's Science & Technology section on a budding compromise in the font stalemate. The WOFF (Web Open Font Format) - a W3C working draft at this point - is a proposal mostly from Mozilla and a couple of font houses. The proposal avoids complicated cryptographic or other digital lock technology in favor of clear-text statements of ownership.

At this point it looks like all the major browser-makers will support this proposal either in current or near-future releases, and since the proposal comes from W3C it's likely to be completely compatible with the CSS rendering standards that browsers also support. In order to promote further compatibility, WOFF positions itself as a container (envelope, or wrapper) that can be put around the currently standard TrueType, OpenType and Open Font Format fonts. This means that existing fonts can be folded into the system with relatively little extra work, and the browser-makers don't have to write whole new decoders to handle WOFF-compliant font files.

In order to limit unwanted sharing, the WOFF spec says that the user agents (browsers, commonly) that implement the WOFF standard should not pull the fonts from other sites, unless explicitly allowed, and should not make the pulled font available to other programs on the end user's computer. That's slightly inefficient but probably the minimal compromise necessary to help font designers/publishers feel that they can trust their wishes will be respected.

As a matter of technology it's trivially true that a specification and plain-text metadata aren't strong protection. However, this practice follows the social conventions and customs used in things like Creative Commons licenses and given that it is in the interest of both the browser makers and most Web content designers to see this succeed I believe this is the right approach. It's much more important to make it easy for the good guys to do the right thing than to divert resources to stopping bad guys from doing the wrong things.

John Daggett has a nice summary and some practical examples over at the Mozilla blog. The image above was nicked from Stephen Shankland on CNET, who credits it to Erik van Blokland from LettError and Tal Leming from Type Supply, two of the major movers behind WOFF.

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