Pros and Cons of free fonts

David LemonDavid Lemon Posts: 6
edited September 2012 in Technique and Theory
Adobe's announcements today (the Source Code monospaced family joins the Source Sans family as open source releases, and Google is collaborating with Typekit on the Edge Web Font service, with more than 500 open source web fonts) seem to have stirred up a fair amount of comment on Twitter. I thought it might be useful to provide a forum for more than "sound bites".

I appreciate concerns that offering anything for free risks cheapening the category. And I agree with those who consider the majority of free or open source fonts mediocre in design and technical quality. (I'm not trying to speak for Adobe or anyone else here.) What I'd like to point out is that there are different reasons for releasing open source fonts. You may agree with some and disagree with others.

I was recently at an event where an open source evangelist suggested that because open source fonts are useful, that justifies creating open source designs that are similar to popular faces whose owners don't want to open source them. I strongly disagree; I don't consider open source an excuse to abuse people's intellectual property. There are other similar points in the open source space that seem similarly ill-thought-out to me.

On the other hand, there are times when free fonts have the potential to do something positive. One example is the Source families. Adobe developed Source Sans and now Source Code and released them as open source because some of Adobe's open source products needed a good UI family (Source Sans) and coding family (Source Code). They couldn't use fonts that weren't open source, and we weren't happy with the existing options. Having released these as open source, lots of developers are invested in their success and have given us great feedback as well as offers to help us grow the fonts' coverage more quickly. Needless to say, that's a different kind of reaction than we get with our commercial releases.

Another example is the Edge Web Fonts service. Because it's hooked into the other Edge tools it makes it easier than ever for developers to integrate web fonts into their designs. At the same time, this is a limited set aimed largely at headline uses. Like many free offerings it's a gateway to broader web font use, where the developers can get a far richer selection by ponying up at commercial web font services. It's also worth noting that the Edge Web Fonts are constrained to web font use. Many of the fonts are also available on the Google Web Font service (where they can be used anywhere), but others are available on the desktop only with commercial licenses. We're curious to see what kind of purchasing traffic this may drive as web designers want desktop fonts for mock-ups.

On the technical side, I'll note the Typekit folks have been putting a bunch of work into the Edge Web Fonts that came to that collection from Google Web Fonts. This raises the level of quality (a common objection) and benefits both services.

Bottom line: Even type isn't black & white ;-) Consider the context!
- thanks,
David L


  • Personally, I have a hard time seeing how these large-library/low-cost/high-volume models scale down in a way that doesn't make things harder for independent type designers.

  • Göran SöderströmGöran Söderström Posts: 117
    edited September 2012
    There are no such things as *real* Open Source fonts any longer. Let’s see them for what they are – bi-products to gain more economical income for (in this case) Google and Adobe.

    It’s not like it’s a bunch of enthusiasts making Open Source fonts because they love sharing or "improving the web" as Google likes to say ;-)
  • Nick ShinnNick Shinn Posts: 1,542
    That was always the case with bundled fonts from Adobe, MS and Apple.

    Let’s hope that better free fonts and more selection continues to raise the level of taste of the general public, whetting its appetite for original commercial designs.
  • That was always the case with bundled fonts from Adobe, MS and Apple.

    But those are not Open Source fonts.
  • @lettersfromswe
    It's possible we'll see more shared development for fonts in the future. The trend toward cloud-based development could help support that, and I know Google's working on a collaborative font dev tool. The challenge is that a community is not inherently more likely to develop a typeface/family that is well integrated and has high-quality design than is a single designer. The majority of new designs really don't advance the state of the art today, and that's the bigger problem to solve.

    Commercial interests have always been involved in open source development, and to this day the majority of open source software work is company-sponsored. Since those companies are responsible to their shareholders, there needs to be a way for them to get value from contributing. But that doesn't mean it can't benefit lots of others too.

    Google's interest is to enable web fonts, which really do "improve the web".
    - thanks,
    David L
  • Dave CrosslandDave Crossland Posts: 1,055
    edited September 2012
    My personal views:

    Matthew's core theory about Google Web Fonts is that the project hasn't done enough to enable type designers to do high quality work initially, or to cultivate a community that drives improvements over time; instead of 'release early, release often', the focus has been on releasing a lot of fonts early without follow-up. Adobe has said they will do some of this follow-up work, which I think is really great news! :-) But Matthew's point remains, that libre fonts are still 'read only' for a lot of folks, despite having a libre license, and Adobe's very welcome contributions also don't enable other designers to do similarly.

    How could Google or Adobe show leadership and do this at a wider scale?

    I think it is rare indeed that a single designer develops large, well-integrated, high-quality typeface families. Most are made by small teams, with a single designer co-ordinating the project. For example with Source Sans, Paul worked with other members of the Adobe Type team, and has credited them for that community effort.

    That community can develop together because they have a shared workflow; shared in that everyone has a copy of the tools, and also shared as in a shared understanding about how to use these tools.

    Type designers publishing libre fonts don't have a shared workflow, and the process of generating binary font files from their sources isn't well documented. This has a chilling effect on potential contributors.

    A well documented, consistent build process from font source files to binaries would be a great first step towards community-centered improvement. The 2nd step would be tools that facilitate reviewing sets of changes between versions -- tools which don't exist anywhere today, and tools which all type designers, from small independent type retailers to libre communities to large corporate library collections, would benefit.

    Google has developed some font related software, sfntly, but it is a binary font file editor library, for dealing with already existing font files. Adobe has, though: The Adobe Font Development Kit for OpenType.

    Some parts of the FDK are already libre, with a simple permissive license. These are very much peripheral parts though; the core of the software that does the real work (and has real bugs and lacks real features that others could help to develop) remains proprietary.

    I hope that Adobe will consider releasing the FDK as 100% libre software. A shared, reliable, high-quality build process would go a long way to help drive up the quality of all fonts, both libre and non-libre.

    Today the FDK is already used to build many fonts being published, because Adobe sells licenses to its source code to font editor developers who integrate it into their applications. Would making the FDK libre mean Adobe has to give up this revenue?

    Not if Adobe used the GPLv3 license. The GPL means that Adobe's existing customers would only be able to use the libre version (without a fee) if their software was also 100% libre. This business model took MySQL to a $1Bn sale to Sun and Trolltech to a $153M sale to Nokia, and I think it would work well for Adobe here, too.

    Independent type designers would surely benefit by making the FDK libre and accelerating the improvement of the font engineering process, so they spend less time on technical work and more time on crafting new designs that really do advance the state of the art today.
  • A few points.
    • I think it is silly to discuss quality of free software fonts as if this were different from the quality of commercial fonts. These discussions invariably are selective about which fonts represent which group. The real objection, then, is that Google et al. aren’t charging people for the right to use crappy fonts. As long as one charges for it, there is no objection.
    • Interestingly, objections are less often made these days to good fonts being released without charge. If one objects to the release of crappy fonts without charge, but not good fonts without charge, what means of making money does this suggest is under threat?
    • Poor font rendering is being used, perhaps purposely or perhaps not, to keep the small-time font developer working overtime, getting little done. Every minute spent instructing a TrueType font, for instance, is a minute wasted on the way to the grave; it is a technical problem that can be solved mechanically. If people want to develop really good fonts, get the industry together to pool and expand its knowledge of font rendering and make it free, so that rendering can be good and uniform everywhere.
  • Göran SöderströmGöran Söderström Posts: 117
    edited September 2012
    I certainly can see why Adobe collaborated with Typekit. Even though Typekit most often used that PR-trick by first releasing auto- or unhinted versions of webfonts and then making a big fuzz about how they have improved it, they seemed to care for quality.

    I don’t get the same vibes from Google, especially since so many of their webfonts are quite unoriginal. Some were also clearly derivative work. I remember going through some of the fonts and found untouched glyphs from commercial fonts, that seem to have been the base of the derivative work.

    David, I understand that Adobe didn't include the whole library of Google webfonts, is that right? If so, could you give a comment on why you left some fonts out? Did you also spotted these clones and derivative work?
  • Göran SöderströmGöran Söderström Posts: 117
    edited September 2012
    I think it is rare indeed that a single designer develops large, well-integrated, high-quality typeface families.

    This seem to be the case with so called "Libre" fonts, but there are *very* many single designers out there making original high quality work in the commercial industry. So it’s not rare at all. Perhaps these designers need to pay their rent and also value their work more than giving it away for free?
  • Google's interest is to enable web fonts, which really do "improve the web".
    - thanks,
    David L

    Sorry, I really meant "improve web typography".
  • davaelab6 & chemoelectric, who are you?
  • Nick ShinnNick Shinn Posts: 1,542
    edited September 2012
    I think it is rare indeed that a single designer develops large, well-integrated, high-quality typeface families.
    Thank you, but I wouldn’t say I was that unusual.

  • Christopher SlyeChristopher Slye Posts: 21
    edited September 2012
    David, I understand that Adobe didn't include the whole library of Google webfonts, is that right? If so, could you give a comment on why you left some fonts out?
    It’s true that we excluded some Google Web Fonts. Because we are offering both free and paid fonts in various ways, we do want to avoid certain conflicts or overlap between the two. For that reason, we excluded a few families and will probably continue to curate, to some degree or another, the Edge Web Fonts that come in from other places.
  • Dave CrosslandDave Crossland Posts: 1,055
    edited September 2012
    I do think that the large families that are popular with graphic designers are mostly made by small teams, aka, foundries. Of course there are single handed type designers that really do it all by themselves, like Göran and Nick, but I think they are clearly outnumbered by all the people who work in small teams. Even those who do publish as single handed foundries often are focused on lettershape drawing, and contract out, uncredited, the engineering side (OpenType coding, hinting, and even spacing & kerning.)

    James, I'm Dave Crossland, and I'm a graduate from the MATD course at the University of Reading in 2009, where I studied with a focus on libre fonts. I've since been consulting for the GWF project, as well as doing libre software consulting in the UK, and everything I say here (and everywhere else) is my own views, not the views of any of my clients.

    chemoelectric is Barry Schwartz, who publishes a small collection of libre fonts, many of which are included in the League of Movable Type and in GWF. Barry has a profile with some bio information on Google+, as do I ,
  • @lettersfromswe
    i sympathise with you, and now they are coming for your precious waffles in exactly the same way;

    "The social norms have changed so much with the Internet, that business rules have changed unrecognizably for those who have run their businesses the same way for decades.

    People are being pushed – no, shoved – out of their comfort zones. The waffle makers at this festival obviously viewed these youth (not of their social group) who were giving out free waffles as a social problem, for which security guards could be involved, and not a business problem, which would be their own failure:

    The social norms have changed so quickly, that the forces upholding order in society have lost their ability to tell a social disturbance from a business disturbance.

    The parallels to file-sharing are strong and present. If you can’t compete with the “free” that file-sharing offers, you can’t compete, period… but distribution executives around the world in monopolized copyright industries are trying to portray file sharing as a social disturbance to be dealt with forcefully, rather than a business failure."

  • Jan SchmoegerJan Schmoeger Posts: 280
    edited September 2012
    And who is Mr vadams, prey? Would you kindly fill in your profiles HERE (not on google or elsewhere, including your full name) before you post on any contentious topic?
  • Profile is 'filled in', just that i have no facebook twitter blah.
    I think the parallel between free fonts and free waffles is highly interesting, and if you look around the net, these same discussions are happening in all sorts of fields, from photography to education, to publishing, to engineering, music, fashion. There's some large scale paradigm shifts to deal with, and as we can see it's challenging many, because it is both socially disturbing and economically disturbing. In these discussions it is allways 'taste & quality' and 'wages & value' that are at the center. Of course it's allways "my taste", "my idea of quality", "my job" and "my money" that is under threat :)
  • Hi Dave, did the TDC ever contact you about doing a presentation there this fall?
  • I added a custom field for Google+ so that Google contractors can link to their accounts.

  • Oh, there are ways to compete with free (or cheap). Otherwise the fashion industry wouldn't exist.
  • Dave CrosslandDave Crossland Posts: 1,055
    edited September 2012
    James M, yes that's right, we spoke about early October, but I'm currently not sure when I'll next be in NYC... :/

    James P, thanks!
  • The 'fashion industry' is an interesting model, and one that's pretty well suited to these paradigm shifts. It is after all a product of that last great paradigm shift - pop culture and the post-war 'teenage' reboot. But 'fashion' has never been a purely 'top down' industry like the type industry. Listen to someone like Johanna Blakely talking about these very same issues, but within the context of the Fashion Industry;
    I think there's much to learn from all of this, but only if you care to learn :)
  • What do you mean that the type industry is "top down"?
  • In his article, "Better Than Free", Kevin Kelly describes how one can make money by "selling free copies" ( Why, or why not, will, what Kelly describes, happen to fonts?
  • vernon adamsvernon adams Posts: 82
    edited September 2012
    'Top Down' in this context means that ideas of quality, taste, aesthetics, work practices etc tend to be formed and consolidated at the top of an industry and filter down, perhaps getting diluted en route. The inverse is 'bottom up' where these tend to enter more at e.g. 'street level' and get drawn upwards to the top, again usually getting diluted en route. Obvious examples of industries that largely tend to be 'bottom up' are fashion and music. I mean that the type industry is 'top down' because the industry declared desireable ideas of taste and quality are formed at the top of the industry and are aimed to pass downwards, towards designers and eventually consumers. That's not contentious, there are very clear reasons that this is the form the type industry takes. But it's important to understand that the type industry's aesthetics and ideas of taste are not driven by what tastes and easthetics are emerging e.g. from street level, or e.g. by some new emerging counter-culture. I suggest there's no inherent reason why the type industry remains so 'top down'. Also the internet is changing type use in a way that makes that old 'top down' approach rather cumbersome and out-of-touch. But then perhaps there's a fashion design forum somewhere on the net, where arguments rage over how the industry can improve the quality of our streets by raising the standards of pedestrian's dress sense and the wearing of the most exquisite tweed.
  • Dave CrosslandDave Crossland Posts: 1,055
    edited September 2012
    Lots of tweed in SoCal is there, @vadams? ;p

    @typenerd, I'm curious about the production process used at Adobe Type group in the time @Butterick mentioned (early 90s) - I believe it was done on SUN workstations running privately developed software, whereas everyone else was either using Fontographer on Macs, Ikarus (on some other workstation -- VMS?) or their own inhouse stuff.
  • Nick ShinnNick Shinn Posts: 1,542
    edited September 2012
    Fashion (clothing) is not digital. The issues for fashion are the treadmill of obsolecence and third world working conditions.

    There is not much difference however, between the historical "freeness" of text and that of digital content.

    The freeness of text was a problem for many years, most notably between the time that the British parliament ended the monopoly of the Stationers in the early 18th century and the international copyright agreements of the mid 19th century. The market did not solve the issue, but legislation.

    It is absurd to say that if you can't handle "free" it's your fault for being an inflexible businessman. As if all those who got screwed in the recent global banking swindle had no one to blame but themselves.

    I've been in the digital graphic design business for almost 25 years, and (especially as a one-designer foundry) have always found it to be quite flat—so, not much distance between "top down" and "bottom up".

    Although I got into digital graphics at the begining, and am hence quite familiar with it, I did so in mid-career, so my relationship with the paradigm is slightly different than those who grew up in it.

    Type is a small industry, a lot of things are flattened out when we get together at conferences, and in online forums. Our superstars don't have handlers. The dialog that occurred prior to the emergence of webfonts was propitious, imho, although I didn't understand a lot of the technical aspects of it.

    While I applaud the democratization of cultural production, it would be nice if in future those who are inclined to make a career of it don't have to primarily support themselves as barristas, or live offshore.
  • vernon adamsvernon adams Posts: 82
    edited September 2012
    It is likely that the 'open source evangelist' mentioned by Typenerd in his original post is me. I believe his reference could be to the short presentation i gave at the 2012 isType Conference, Istanbul, Turkey, entitled "'Freeness' as a Technical Component of Type Design". Maybe Typenerd could confirm that? If not i'd genuinely be interested to know who it was :)

    I can categorically say that in the presentation i gave i did not suggest anything like "that because open source fonts are useful, that justifies creating open source designs that are similar to popular faces whose owners don't want to open source them". This misrepresentation probably alludes to the part of my talk where i compared old cuts of Gill Sans, with a new proprietary face, Prenton (by BlueHead Studio), that consciously draws from the old Gill face, and a free font project of my own 'Peel Sans' that similarly draws from the old Gill face. I also presented a small preview of another free font project of mine, 'Mertz' that takes it's lead from a good handfull of similar faces from the late 1920's and 30's that were clearly heavilly influenced or 'copied' to/from each other at that period. The faces i showed and /or mentioned that have fed the design of 'Mertz' were 'Metro', 'Tempo', 'Bernhard Gothic', 'Vogue', 'Semplicita' and 'Nobel'.

    'Mertz' and 'Peel Sans' are very clearly new and distinct designs, but as i stated in my talk, their 'freeness' makes them accessible to users in a way that similar proprietary designs are not.

    I don't think it makes the greatest sense to suggest that the designs of these fonts, 'Mertz' and 'Peel Sans', in any way "abuse people's intellectual property". Which people? and which specific intellectual property is being abused? And why single me out specifically? there are many many proprietary typefaces that in exactly the same way have grown from the same influence from the same old faces.
    ps - I will gracefully accept an apology / correction to the original post :)
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