Web-font cold-war over? No DRM, universal access, embedded licenses

Glenn Fleishman writes,
After more than a decade of disagreements about how to let Web designers use real typefaces, the impasse was broken last year, and it's coming to fruition now. Instead of DRM, font foundries have agreed to something like "font streaming." No locks, compatibility across all browsers, and embedded text that explains the legitimate use of the font. Microsoft, Mozilla, and Opera brought the spec to the W3C, for crying out loud; Safari, WebKit, and Chrome are all signed on. The W3C accepted the WOFF spec in July; in September at the annual international type conference, there was much rejoicing. I explain more in the Economist's Babbage blog today.

The success here is that foundries, protective of a market that doesn't have monopoly properties (there is plenty of competition), and makers of something that's easily copied even over low-bandwidth connections, have accepted that DRM doesn't work. Instead of relying on encryption and creating incompatible standards that require ridiculous infrastructure, type houses have opted to build a market in which they can make money by making it easy for designers to use their fonts. Who would have thought?

True to type (Thanks, Glenn!)


  1. I vaguely remember fonts being a nightmare from my newspaper days, but can’t recall how much of that was actual honest-to-god DRM or if it was mostly just nasty licensing that created an atmosphere of technological fear and loathing.

    I always figured it was because fonts and copyright don’t mix — and that was why foundries were among the earliest to explore some of the now-familiar backdoor tricks of the IP trade. Patenting the (obvious) methods used to render type, for example, sets legal traps that cover for the lack of copyright protection inherent in the business. Something like that, anyway!

    1. There wasn’t DRM for fonts, because the Type 3 PostScript and TrueType fonts didn’t have a mechanism to phone home. There were dire warnings and actual enforcement (including software raids) about using the $300-$600 font families on multiple machines or copied from other sources. I think Adobe’s whole font collection could be purchased (unlocked) on a single disc for $15,000?

      And, right, you can’t copyright the appearance of a font, but can trademark its name. So there are lots of variants that look and seem just like well-known fonts with funny names. That kind of thing plus a flood of typefaces of all kinds definitely dropped font prices for print quite a bit.

      Foundries were rightly freaked out that the wrong standard and wrong approach might make it so simple to copy full print-quality fonts that their market would disappear. This seems to strike a very nice balance. I’d rather let some other firm (for a monthly fee or something) handle all the mechanics of delivering the right fonts to my visitors, and then I focus on design.

  2. I like how the font association guy truly believes in his heart that more fonts will finally make possible “real” web publications that people want to read. To think, for the last 15 years I’ve been reading all this fake crap against my will.

    1. That’s a misreading of those comments. It’s not that things suck today. Rather, that to make good-looking publications on the Web, you’re subject to many limitations as a designer, and spend a lot of time dealing with workarounds, incompatibility, tradeoffs, and, in the end, a very limited set of fonts that are used everywhere (unless you render images in which case you’re trading a different set of problems). With a standard for choosing fonts that you know all readers will be able to view, designers will have more tools, and more time to focus on the visual appeal and communication instead of compatibility and nonsense.

      Imagine having real hyphenation and justification rules, so that a column of type can be flush to the left and right, and reflow with proper hyphenation when the column is made wider or narrower? That’s not about type; it’s about typography, but WOFF sets the stage for that. Without choices for type, typography has less importance.

      1. I think possibly you have misread my comment. What I found amusing was the guy’s assumption that a web publication cannot be “real” (and, by implication, cannot be valued by readers) until it has proper typography. It’s a nice demonstration of the priorities and prejudices that Designers-with-a-capital-D can have. Personally, I’d rather have an article that’s really well-written rather than one that’s really well-typeset. I say that as someone who’s built websites professionally since 1995 and as someone who once read all of Pride & Prejudice on a first-generation Palm Pilot.

        1. No, you are misreading my misreading of your misreading! Misreader! Honestly, John Berry is talking to the larger issue of typographic formatting, not just typefaces. WOFF is the thin edge of the wedge for capabilities that are coming for better legibility.

          I agree with you (what? agreement?) that the writing is important, but presenting words in the way in which they can be best read ensures that they are read more widely and well.

          As you profess to reading P&P on a PP, you know very well that very few people could abide such reading. The Kindle took off because it offers a decent simulation of paper and typography.

          I would argue that books shaped how we read, but deep structures of the mind shaped books.

        2. “Personally, I’d rather have an article that’s really well-written rather than one that’s really well-typeset.”

          So would I. The whole point of text typography is to present the author’s words in the clearest way possible. It’s not about decoration. All those details of typography like choice of font, size, leading, line length, and word- and letter-spacing — and now, online, the rendering of the fonts — exist to serve the text.

  3. WTF? Is the creator of Impact bitching and crying about how much money he/she lost to unlicensed lolcat pics or something? And I’m guessing the creator of MS Comic Sans got dollar signs in his eyes after realizing just how many different church newsletters were “pirating” his “product” every week?

    Finding a way to force people to buy something, for which they have no financial incentive to make use of, will only serve to stifle expression and creativity; particularly among youth and beginning artists who lack the resources to license every single pre-existing component of their work from so-called “intellectual property” owners of some product. This is nothing more than thinly-veiled gateway-legislation, paving a path for the removal of the Fair Use clause in its entirety. I leave it to everyone else to decide whether this is a good or bad consequence (are you as sick of lolcats as I am?)
    What really upsets me is that this kind of reverse-piracy against free expression will continue until Big Content can have what it’s always wanted, the moment the technology becomes practical: a means to charge and re-charge us for revisiting our own living memories of their “property”. Yes, I seriously mean nothing less than brainwave-activated pay-per-view chips implanted at birth (in addition to the impending DHS “minority report chip”, or else your baby doesn’t get a social security number)

  4. A history of DRM and web typogrpahy is incomplete without mentioning how HTTP access control has been used primarily to prevent cross-domain font usage.

    And from a purely practical standpoint, WOFF isn’t really the holy grail the article makes it out to be; to include downloadable fonts in web pages today, you’d need TrueType/OpenType fonts for everything except Internet Explorer, as well Embedded OpenType for Internet Explorer. Adding WOFF/TTF/OTF support in IE9 won’t obviate the need to continue using EOT for older versions of IE for the next decade, and it won’t stop anyone from making unauthorized EOT derivatives of TTF/OTF fonts using a tool like ttf2eot or Microsoft’s own WEFT.

    1. HTTP access control doesn’t add DRM to font files, though, and I’m not sure how it relates to this new approach being taken.

      As far as WOFF, it’s going to be part of the path that’s taken as HTML5 and CSS3 matures and is baked into new browsers. WOFF isn’t a clear-the-plate standard. After enough time goes by, we’ll find sites that can only be viewed well with HTML5/CSS3/WOFF browsers, just as there’s a split in sites that look fine in older browsers but don’t have interactivity unless you’re using a newer one.

      What the agreement on WOFF by foundries and browsers is about is having a single, unified, DRM-free, sensible, non-partitioned method to move forward on.

      Backwards compatibility becomes the responsibility of the font “streaming” outfits, like TypeKit, which will handle all the backend nonsense, including appropriate licensing for whatever standards they serve to older browsers through JavaScript detection.

      None of this stops anyone from legally or illegally using fonts in other ways. It’s just terrific to see everything coalesce around something that won’t involve a horrific, fragile, and useless infrastructure to support.

  5. This is kind of dumb. After Firefox 3.5 enabled web fonts like 2 years ago I just started using them. For every fancy paid font from a foundry there are a few dozen open source or free ones you can use in its place.

    There was never an impasse for those of us willing to accept a somewhat lesser font, and I’ve made a bunch of websites with killer typography already. But I guess serious typography nerds will care about this.

  6. I’m confused. Is this saying that the “subscription service” model is acceptable? Limited page views, and yearly fees like those offered by typekit, myfont, etc. are clearly ridiculous, right? Are we saying this is somehow going to alleviate that problem? Isn’t this just a standard implementation across browsers? Nasty EULAS, broken technology, and bad business practice don’t seem effected by this development.

    What am I missing?

    1. The length of the piece may have obscured the two separate issues. WOFF will let anybody with what will likely be a range of free to professional-fee tools package up fonts and serve them along with pages. You won’t need a third-party service to handle it. You won’t have to manage DRM. You can use free fonts; you can choose to interpret licenses of fonts you bought or were copied for you or you illegally downloaded or whatever in whatever way you choose. You have the freedom to make good, bad, neutral, and litigatible choices. That’s the joy of having no DRM.

      The second part is that there are “streaming” services like TypeKit, Fonts.com, etc., that provide a relatively inexpensive service that avoids as a designer or Web site operator having to deal with backward compatibility, licensing, and all that. I’d rather pay a small fee each month to have the fonts I want appear in the way I want across all modern browsers than deal with that myself.

      You’ll have the choice. And it’s a real choice. That’s what’s great. The foundries will sue people, I’m sure, if they find sites streaming or offering their fonts in opposition to what they believe their copyright and licensing terms allow. But they’re also not using DRM to monitor our activities, restrict the flow of fonts, or prevent easy use in browsers.

  7. “The success here is that foundries… have accepted that DRM doesn’t work.”

    Having been intimately involved in all those discussions, I’m pretty sure that is not an accurate representation.

    Some foundries accepted that DRM doesn’t work. The remainder accepted that the browser vendors would not accept any standard that even smelled a bit like DRM, and as a result no such standard would ever be adopted by the W3C or make it into the marketplace. Because of that, the question of whether DRM could work in theory became moot.

    Also, although the new WOFF format is nice and all, it is not a necessity to make web fonts work today. >95% of web browsing users today can see some form of web fonts on the computer they’re using. It’s just that the websites need to serve up several different formats. That will be true for several years yet, until WOFF is supported not only by the latest browsers, but also by the installed base of browsers.



    Thomas Phinney
    Extensis font guy

    1. This is a good distinction, and I am glad to get knowledge from inside the fence (and will grill you about this at SVC’s upcoming type conference).

      Perhaps the more accurate phrasing is that the foundries have given up on the notion of DRM, despite their persistent interest in it, because reality won out over their desire for controlling piracy (in a provably ineffective way).

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