A Call For Open Sourcing Our Fonts

With embedded fonts being supported by all modern browsers in one form or another (be it EOT or @font-face), it is only a matter of time until font embedding becomes commonplace on sites catering to current generation browsers. There is a large collection of blog articles discussing the obvious ramifications of embedding commercially-licensed fonts, the inevitable rise in piracy and the equally inevitable decrease in type foundry profits. I have spent a lot of time thinking about this subject and how it relates to recent copyright debacles conflicts. I would like to be optimistic that a proactive approach towards embedding licensed fonts is attainable and will be accepted by many of the major foundries. However, I do not think it will be happening anytime soon. Therefore, I think the more plausible solution for the immediate future, is to push for an embeddable, open source font collection.

The Easier of Two Daunting Tasks

To be clear, I do not think it will be even remotely simple to create a core open source font library that would be seen as a viable alternative to the market’s best commercial fonts. I am not under the impression that some random people on the internet with high aspirations can just usurp Max Miedinger and Paul Renner in their spare time. What I am aware of though is the 10 year stalemate we have had with copyright protection and media/information distribution on the internet. I am also aware that, like most other issues, the W3C and Microsoft will most likely go their separate ways in how to handle this situation. This leaves the rest of the folks sitting around, waiting for someone to solve the problem. That is how little faith I have in this being settled without an open source intervention. Do not get me wrong, I understand the dilemma of type foundries. I would not be privy to having commercially-licensed fonts to be freely downloaded by anyone willing to look through the source code of a CSS file. That is an easy way to not be in business anymore. On the flip side however, that is no reason for the public to wait for hell to freeze over.

To a degree, this idea has already started to take form. There are some small repositories of open source fonts getting started. Additionally, there are some great collections of free fonts already available. The problem from my perspective is that most of the free fonts currently available just are not comprehensive or flexible enough to meet the basic needs for everyday widespread use.

Five Families, That’s All I Propose

If the web community had five strong, reliable and flexible typefaces to choose from, the general web experience would increase dramatically. In my opinion, these five type familes consist of a headline san-serif (ala Futura), a general use san-serif (ala Helvetica), a classical/transitional serif (ala Garamond), a modern serif (ala Bodoni) and a slab serif (ala Clarendon). Instead of spending time making more than these five fonts, my desire would be to see a diverse selection of weights for each family. Instead of the grossly undernourished choices of regular, italic, bold and bold italic, it would be welcoming to have the choice of light, book, heavy, condensed and other weights that just have not been in our lexicon up to this point. While five families may seem slim, these families should take care of the majority of use cases online and could potentially improve both the aesthetics, legibility and readability of online copy. Creating replacements of typefaces such as Helvetica and Futura is not something that I think is attainable. However, using these fonts as a benchmark in terms of quality and weight diversity is. Even coming remotely close to their quality would be a step up from where we currently sit. This solution would obviously pose no threat to type foundries — there will still be plenty of demand for their fonts. If such an open source collection existed, I could also see less desire by many to embed commercially-licensed fonts without permission.

Headlines Be Damned, This Is About Copy

It may not always be pretty, but web developers and designers have come up with many ways to set small portions of text in non-system fonts. While the solutions are not perfect, it at least exists. The major reason embeddable fonts are so important is to allow online copy to be set in non-system fonts. The frustration amongst anyone designing on the web is that basically all web-safe system fonts are just frankly sub-par. Honestly, if we could rely on Helvetica Neue, Sabon and possibly even Clarendon as web-safe fonts, I think I would be far less concerned about this issue. Yes, we all want to use particular fonts for particular projects, but at least we could find comfort that the type set on a website was set in a legible, solid and beautiful typeface with enough weights to ensure proper use. At this moment in time we just do not have any system font that meets those needs. To me, that is the real promise of embeddable fonts — to bring type setting on the web to the level print designers have been on for decades.

Do Not Underestimate What An Open Source Project Can Achieve

We are all aware at this point that just because something is free does not mean it is devoid of value. The open source movement is responsible for giving birth to some of the most important and influential software in the world. Additionally, the concept of “open source” is moving beyond its initial definition and encompassing any project, regardless of medium, where the intellectual materials used in constructing it are made available for reuse and modification. There are an increasing number of web studios that take an internal codebase and offer it up as open source. I do not see why it is too far off on the horizon for forward-thinking design studios to get in the spirit. Ultimately, the same rules apply — they are just executed in slightly different manners.

Much of the internet is based on open source technology. It seems fitting that the letters of the words read on it are open source as well. So until the time where all major browsers come up with a solution to safely allow embedding of commercial fonts without the possibility of piracy (i.e. a very long time from now), I think we should get busy and start making fonts of our own. For everyone that has been forced to read in Arial, it will be a welcome change.

3 thoughts on “A Call For Open Sourcing Our Fonts”

  1. @Si Forster – I totally agree. We have some great options for text replacement nowadays, but ultimately, it still is text replacement. We should not have to replace text in the first place.

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