Pros and Cons of free fonts



  • Pablo, thanks for coming forward with more information. It's really helpful.
  • @maxphillips asked: David L, if you're reading this, could you contribute some detail about how Adobe Edge Fonts do it? [i.e. pay for fonts to incorporate]

    For better or worse, the Edge Web Fonts *don't* do it. The collection consists of a curated selection from the GWF plus some families Adobe agreed to contribute. The latter are a mix of public domain designs we developed long ago and a sprinkling from the Adobe Originals series. I haven't heard of any plans to commission additions; at this point further growth (if any) is likely to be just more GWF or more existing Adobe fonts.

    I'm not sure what Google's goals are with GWF, but I think the Edge Web Fonts' goals are more narrow: to provide a reasonable set of fonts that are easy to use on the web. That doesn't require an exhaustive selection. The whole project was cooked up by Typekit, who have an obvious interest in continuing the commercial side of web fonts as well.
    - thanks,
    David L
  • Dave CrosslandDave Crossland Posts: 1,278
    edited October 2012
    Re: 'The iron fist of oppression,' well, the copyfight end game looks rather like this to me:

    Sorry to be brief, loving the discussion here, will write more later :)
  • Göran SöderströmGöran Söderström Posts: 117
    edited October 2012

    Dave, would you mind if I published the mail correspondence you and me had some time ago, right here in this thread? To sort of, tell a transparent, all true story which would answer some questions in this thread?

    I’m thinking freedom of speech goes well with freedom of fonts? Do you agree?

  • David L, thanks for your your prompt and candid reply.
  • Re: 'The iron fist of oppression,' well, the copyfight end game looks rather like this to me:
    So you believe that, if designers claim any ownership of their work, it will inexorably lead to two-year prison sentences for people watching copyrighted YouTube videos and mandatory black-box surveillance of all ISPs? That, because Japan's passed a ridiculous law, all creative works must be free to whoever wants them?
  • vernon adamsvernon adams Posts: 82
    edited October 2012
    "I don’t think anyone is disputing that GWF fills a need. I just think some people would be happier to see more focus on needs other than single display faces."

    Imho there's a danger in viewing type just through the latter contemporary lense of large families with wide arrays of weights, ultra extended charsets, fancy features and everything but the kitchen sink. There is actually a great historical lineage of single weight display faces that traditionally played a much greater typographic role than many designers today give them credit for.
  • 22K views! David L and James P, you have a runaway bestseller on your hands. Time to cast Pros and Cons of Free Fonts: The Motion Picture. And who wants to help code the video game?
    I think that number is incorrect. The entire site only had 1,710 views yesterday.
  • Dave CrosslandDave Crossland Posts: 1,278
    edited October 2012
    Again, this is all my own personal views and not the views of anyone else or any organisation I might be associated with:


    "So you believe that, if designers claim any ownership of their work,"

    Distributing a typeface under a libre license is not the same as giving up all rights to the typeface; think of the phrase, popularized by Creative Commons, "Some Rights Reserved."

    A libre licensed work has an owner, and for them, selling non-libre licenses is one business model option.

    If anyone wants to understand the nuances of libre fonts, reading the text of the SIL Open Font License is a good place to start. Its a short document, fits on a single page, and was co-authored by a very well-respected and experienced typeface designer, Victor Gaultney, of Gentium fame, as way of bridging the requirements of a libre license and the interests of typeface designers. The OFL FAQ unpacks some of the details, but I think the main thing of interest to designers are:

    1. It requires all derivatives to remain under the OFL, so no one else can make proprietary fonts based on OFL fonts.

    2. The Reserved Font Name aspect, in particular, allows designers to retain control over typefaces that use the name they originally used for it.

    3. It restricts selling OFL fonts 'by themselves.'

    Seems these 3 things are very attractive to typeface designers, and with them they are much more interested in libre licensing their work, compared to say the Apache 2.0 license, which says anyone can do anything - including selling proprietary versions.

    "because Japan's passed a ridiculous law, all creative works must be free to whoever wants them?"

    All creative works are not the same in kind. Functional works, artistic works and works of opinion are different kinds of works. You can't say, "this novel is broken." You can't say, "this forum post is broken."

    Yes, all digital works face the same issue, "Who can distribute copies of this digital work." Broadly, I think non-commercial file sharing should be legal in all cases. But beyond that, the details ought to be different depending on what kind of work it is (which is the way copyright works today with different durations for different kinds of works.)

    For works of opinion, I believe personal filesharing is essential in a just society, cf Wikileaks. For artistic works like music, my personal view is that it leads to more 'superfans' for more artists to make a living with.

    I'm happy to see all the Pirate Parties spring up and start to get legitimate political power and influence; I'm happy that Portugal is treating people decently - - and I'm sad that the UK and USA are are not -'Dwyer . What Japan's done isn't merely ridiculous, its tyranny.

    For artistic works, beyond personal filesharing, I see no problem in regulation of commercial use of artistic works. I think Creative Commons licenses are great for artists. But that issue isn't so important to me, personally.

    Helping filesharing for works of opinion is perhaps more import than libre fonts, though. When I decided to work on libre fonts about 6 years ago, I thought about it - doing interaction design for the Tor Project (part of the technical infrastructure of Wikileaks.)

    But I'm a designer, and I found myself saying a lot, "this typeface is broken -- and no one can fix it except the owner, who refuses." Its a common situation. While we can disagree about how important this situation is, earlier in the thread you asked what the point of libre fonts was, and that is the point, for me personally.


    In this thread, @James_Puckett wrote, "I don’t see how a Gigalypse family fits into most current trends. But I might change my mind if this single Gigalypse sells."

    My suggestion to GWF has been similar; Google could spend all the budget on a bunch of families that the managers guess will be popular, but I think its better to spend it on a wide variety of single styles and see which are actually used, and then expand those families.

    You may be right that this disadvantaged text types that really need 4+ styles to get real usage, but I think its easy enough to account for that in the analysis - just look at the stats for single style text types.
  • Dave CrosslandDave Crossland Posts: 1,278
    edited October 2012

    I don't think publishing private emails is polite, especially since they mention other people, so thanks for not just going ahead and doing so :-) I agree there are unanswered questions that the type design community has for the GWF team - but I can only speak for myself. I'm an external consultant to the Google Web Fonts team and my insight into the team is partial at best, and also, everything I know is under an NDA. So I can only give my own personal views; and this thread is about the pros and cons of libre fonts, not really the business deals of GWF.

    But there is what the computing culture calls FUD, 'fear, uncertainty, doubt,' about GWF, eg @typenerd said, "I'm not sure what Google's goals are with GWF". I think they have been quite clear in their goal in all their public statements: they want web fonts to take off in a big way. I don't think I'm breaking my NDA to say that I've never heard anything privately from them to the contrary. I'm grateful that they think libre fonts is partially aligned with that goal, and that they invited me to help them with their goal.

    So, for all the unanswered questions in this thread, I suggest that we collaborate on a set of questions - say with - and I'll see if I can get the team to answer them.

    @typenerd "The latter are a mix of public domain designs we developed long ago"

    Again, I'm curious where you see the public domain line being drawn :-)
  • Saying that Google wants web fonts to take off in a big way naturally draws the follow-up question: why? What's in it for Google? I have added this to your question thread.
  • Jan SchmoegerJan Schmoeger Posts: 280
    edited October 2012
    everything I know is under an NDA
    Loverly. Where does Wikileaks fit in there?
  • Dave CrosslandDave Crossland Posts: 1,278
    edited October 2012
    @paragraph It fits into the concept of 'compromise.' I agree to NDAs when it furthers my own goals. We all have to make trade offs with our values :)

    A lot of type designers somewhat agree with what I'm on about. They say 'Well, yeah yeah, I like the idea of being a designer who has equal control over the fonts I use as the initial designer, a typographic culture like that sounds great, but to become involved in a libre type culture, I gotta get paid for my time. If you can tell me how, or hook me up, then I'm into it making libre fonts.' Its a compromise.

    Some designers aren't very keen on the idea of libre fonts, but they're in business and consider a libre font commission like any other commission. Its a compromise.

    Its very rare that folks say 'No, everyone should always pay me for a copy of everything I create, go away.' It happens, but its rare - about as rare as people as uncompromising at the other end of the spectrum like myself and @chemoelectric.

    Back to NDAs, I personally won't ask other people to agree to NDAs with me, and I'm wary of technical know-how NDAs; I signed one once with a dutch type designer and web developer who makes a very interesting xml CMS, and it bothered me that I couldn't share copies with friends or tell anyone how it worked, so I abandoned it. As an external consultant to Google, I'm not exposed to any of their private software.

    (I heard that one of the reasons Silicon Valley is where it is, is that no-compete clauses aren't valid in California - but are in the East Coast.)

    @tphinney I think the existing public statements from the GWF team are quite clear about this, such as in the start of the 2011 Google IO presentation: "Google loves Web Fonts. Web Fonts not only make the Web more expressive, more semantic, more accessible, more translatable, but they also make it more searchable. And we think Web Fonts is a win for everybody involved." The presentation lists other details, like making the web as visually rich as magazines; having text selection & copy & paste work; having zooming in to webpages look smooth - which is good for regular users and very good for people who like to read web text a little larger; real text is semantic for other accessibility access modes.... well, you might as well check it for yourself. "We’re, basically, looking to reduce all these pain points and make Web Fonts ubiquitous."
  • Thanks for the questions! I'll leave it open over the weekend and take it to the team early next week :)
  • Göran SöderströmGöran Söderström Posts: 117
    edited October 2012
    I don't think publishing private emails is polite, especially since they mention other people


    It’s not about being polite or not. You guys speak about Libre, Open Source – almost as an ideology. Freedom to share. Work together in open teams where everybody is welcome. One big happy community changing the world.

    But when it comes to freedom of speech, it’s a completely different story.

    Over and out.
  • Jan SchmoegerJan Schmoeger Posts: 280
    edited October 2012
    I agree to NDAs when it furthers my own goals.
    Almost sorry to have to do this to you, Dave: Is that the same as "the end justifies the means", please?
  • Dave CrosslandDave Crossland Posts: 1,278
    edited October 2012
    @paragraph Are you saying you never make compromises? Really?

    @lettersfromswe If you have questions you want answered, I'll do my best to get them answered. I don't think sharing our private emails about other people is the best way to do that.

  • I personally am not that interested in 'open source.' The ideas around 'open source' are rather wooly, often about merely practical issues rather than political or ethical issues, and so not very inspiring to me.
    Staying truthful to the question posed, I think that if we’re speaking of ways in which an ecosystem of production and distribution of free-as-in-freedom fonts can bring punctual benefits to all parties, then we’re discussing under the realm of open source in contrast to a philosophy more in terms with the Free Software Foundation. Of course, I'd love to read more about Dave's views on this topic, especially when it comes to font development (and I'm sure he would talk strictly about his own views and not the ones of any organisation he is associated with) and am standing in the shoulders of giants, namely the view exposed in Matthew Butterick's essay 7 Essential Qualities of Open Source.

    Interrogations and rantings on GWF aside, I can't see why there is no substantial investment in peer reviewed initiatives jumpstarted and governed by benevolent dictators (not only by GWF but by virtually no one). Given all submissions are audited and thorough feedback on how they could be improved is provided, it would guarantee benefits to everyone: sponsors add value to their core business, the community gets to appropriate a good quality asset, seasoned designers get paid and aspiring ones get to learn the trade at some level, without submitting themselves to Internet forum type critiques many established designers are not eager to take part in.

    Such process could also benefit further development and maturation of technologies increasingly central to type design such as UFO.
  • @davelab6 I apologize if my statement "I'm not sure what Google's goals are for GWF" sounded like FUD. I'm well aware of Google's stated goal to encourage the wider use of web fonts, but I'm not in a position to speak for Google (and barely for for the Edge Web Fonts).

    You asked, "Again, I'm curious where you see the public domain line being drawn." I don't need to "draw a line" because we try to avoid anything that's ambiguous in the first place. There's no shortage of great stuff to be done without going there.

    Public domain designs we've developed include designs put into the public domain by standards bodies (e.g. the OCR series), re-interpretations of designs originating multiple centuries ago (e.g. Garamond, Jenson, and Caslon), and designs created for companies that disappeared without passing their IP to a successor (e.g. the Wood Type series we did).
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  • Dave CrosslandDave Crossland Posts: 1,278
    edited October 2012
    @typenerd thanks for your clarifications on both points :) The GWF goals are being questioned on this thread, and for misreading your comment as also doing that, I also apologize :)
  • @davelab6 I compromise all the time, Dave. But then I'm not an activist or evangelist of anything. I am very sceptical about their goals and methods, though.
  • Dave CrosslandDave Crossland Posts: 1,278
    edited October 2012
    @paragraph Fair enough :) This discussion is probably veering off topic, but maybe we can chat about over dinner at some type event some day :)

    @TipoTipos Paying established designers to take part in Internet forum type critiques is an interesting idea. I'll pitch it to the GWF team. Who would want to participate?

    I agree there hasn't been substantial investment in peer reviewed initiatives that are jumpstarted and governed by benevolent dictators -- but there is some. Here's five:

    1. As an initial exploration, I commissioned Angélica Díaz, a graduate from the typeface design masters in Buenos Aires, who did Esteban, to do a review of some of the submitted fonts in GWF. She did screencasts and posted them up at and the reviewees were very happy with it.

    2. Eben Sorkin, who did Merriweather and who graduated with top marks from Reading, has been doing this kind of art direction review workflow, but entirely privately. I hope he might comment on it here, but this kind of 'in house studio' collaboration is typical of most full time type designers (who tend to work in small studio groups.)

    3. @vadams has his stuff on Github and actively blogs about what he's doing, and I believe has a lot of conversations with his users in private email correspondence. GitHub has a learning curve, and it may be that its a net loss because of it. Adobe's big brand pull means they've attracted a lot of attention on Source Sans, and I'm excited to see what happens there - its a great opportunity to see what the open source development model that @Butterick blogged about looks like. Matthew, is it fair to say that Adobe Source Sans meets all your definitive criteria for open source?

    4. @PabloImpallari was a web developer before getting into typeface design, and has created his Impallari Font Projects website. Its the same basic idea as GitHub, but has basically no learning curve; there are project pages for each font family where ZIP files are posted, containing all the font source files and binaries, and some preview images. At each stage in the design process, updates are posted, while each ZIP version is kept around. People can comment on each version, and even upload their own ZIP or images if they want to contribute directly.

    5. Pablo's system is much like, but without any benevolent dictators, a totally self service affair. Its been a very slow-going project.

    But even a simple system like those may be rather unnecessary - Pablo developed Lobster using peer review to learn, rather than joining a formal course like Reading or KABK or CDT or Cooper, and that peer review was all in the critiques sections of forums like this. Such forums function just the same, if people post ZIP files with full sources on whatever file hosting service they normally use (WordPress, Dropbox, Google Drive, MegaUpload ;-) and link to them from the forum -- and that would probably be wiser, since there's a bigger community of people interested in passing comment.

    But basically designers aren't all that interested in it. It would be nice if they were, and I've verbally encouraged all the designers I've connected to GWF to do this kind of thing. But only a few of them have. As I said, I'm not all that personally interested in taking major action to push this forward with my discretional time and money; I have done that in the past with Open Font Library (I raised $10,000 for it in 2008 and sunk a fair bit of my own cash on its development too) and there are other things that need to happen first, I think, like, again, a shared font build process. So I now prefer to spend my time and play money investing in FontForge.
  • @tphinney "I consider [single styles in designs that need many styles to be fully useful] one of GWF's two biggest errors in implementation, just as big as not having a high enough bar for quality."

    'Quality' is a super interesting philosophical topic, and when I was in college I was much persuaded by post-modernism's anthropologic ideas on the topic. I'm not that much a fan of modernist edicts on what expert opinion thinks is "quality": If some thing is quality it will be used more, if its not quality, it won't be -- all other things being equal. Which is very rarely the case.

    So I'm partial to using the usage statistics of the GWF fonts as a guide to quality. These has just launched this week, announced in this blog post.

    The Google Web Fonts Analytics page allows you to compare font usage across families and across various amounts of time.
  • Thomas PhinneyThomas Phinney Posts: 2,511
    edited October 2012
    @davelab6 "So I'm partial to using the usage statistics of the GWF fonts as a guide to quality."

    Seriously? If typeface X happens to be suddenly popular this year it means it is higher quality than it was last year?

    This is definitely one of those areas where we disagree. I think it is self-evident that for some aspects of type design and font production there are at least partly objective measures of quality, and that popularity is, well, popularity, and clearly a distinct thing.

    The high end of font quality can be tricky and often subjective. But at the low end, it is easy to tell when something is crud, and there are objective measures of cruddiness.

    As an example of a fairly clear objective evidence of poor quality, let's take a font that is a simple sans serif in the top 25 on Google Web Fonts. The left side of the glyphs BDEFHIKLMNP are all straight lines, and the left sidebearing of those glyphs varies seemingly randomly in a range from 51 to 100. The cap L has a larger right sidebearing than left sidebearing. So the spacing is garbage. Still is as of tonight, I just downloaded it fresh.

    I assert that this font was poorly crafted, and that this is self-evident to anybody with any half-decent understanding of type design.

    This is of course not an indictment of all free fonts, nor am I suggesting that no proprietary font could be that awful. Most everybody in this discussion knows of fabulously crafted free fonts and I could certainly point to some poorly crafted commercial fonts (including one that I spent about 80 hours trying to improve, a year or two ago). It's just a concrete example of a popular Google Web Font that I see as being below any reasonable quality bar.
  • Dave CrosslandDave Crossland Posts: 1,278
    edited October 2012

    There is a very wide variation in the qualities of type in the collection.

    For the really poorly crafted stuff, I think its worth a shot because it doesn't cost anything to try it. If it turns out to be useful for people, its easy enough to make the case for spending money to improve it. Most of this really crappy stuff hardly gets used at all, and I guess those ones will be de-listed at some point (while continuing to work for existing users, until they drop to zero.)

    In the print world its physically impossible to issue updates to type retroactively; but a web font service makes it easy to do. Its a genuinely new situation, and I think it means the initial quality bar for useful type is now much lower on the web than it had to be in the print world.

    Just as there are poorly crafted things that turned out to become really widely used, there are plenty of things in the bottom 20% where good money was spent up front on a really well crafted type, and it turns out to be a dud - it lacks the significant, meaningful parts of what makes up 'type quality' - the stuff that people picking type respond to.

    Diplomata is the best example of this today. Can you question the crafted quality of that font? So what is it that makes it fail? Is it a lack of incremental improvements - would better hinting, or more family styles, make it more useful? Or is it something more fundamental, like wide inline type just isn't very useful as web fonts. Maybe a regular width (or slightly narrow) version would be better.

    It seems simply prudent to me to start with going wide and shallow then double down on things that prove their worth, instead of taking a narrow focus and over-committing to stuff. As a small independent type designer, you HAVE to do that, and its very risky. A minor reason that people like doing web fonts for GWF is that it has been, so far, an open brief - the team has been happy to try out whatever type designers think will be popular - and thats been refreshing for some people.

    In terms of libre fonts, this all means that if someone is using a libre font and the original designers decide not to develop it any further, that person can arrange for another designer to develop further in the direction they wanted.

    So for this ultra-poorly crafted stuff, its likely to be made by a novice. I think pairing them up with a more experienced designer is an excellent way forward, and the nature of OFL Reserved Font Names somewhat requires giving them that option anyway.

    I already heard from a few professional small independent type designers who offered to do this kind of thing, so if you're interested, please email me :)
  • I doubt Myriad or Helvetica would have become terribly popular if only the regular face had been made available.
    I'm not actually standing at my desk applauding this sentence, Thomas, but I feel like it.

    On the other hand, I'd like to suggest another way of looking at GWF. You could say that they're "actively blessing and promoting crap typefaces." (Actually, how vigorously are they promoting them?) But you could also say that about MyFonts. And I think filterless, unglamorous, uncurated MyFonts has made an immense contribution to contemporary type design. By more or less eliminating barriers to entry, they've made it possible for good and determined designers who don't have connections or an inside track, and who might otherwise not have had a shot, to find customers and build independent bodies of strong work. Sure, they've also facilitated a mountain of dreck, but, as Dave C notes, that stuff mostly just sits on a server somewhere, not bothering anybody. So if GWF helps a few good designers find their feet and start to make real contributions, is it so bad that they also offer a lot of dud typefaces nobody uses?

    And, as you suggest, for people in the non-libre type business, there's a bright side to GWF's approach to library-building:

    1) "Hey, Google Web Fonts! There's an exciting world out there beyond Georgia and Arial! Who knew?"

    2) "Hm. Most of these don't actually look very good when I plug them into my blog. No italics, either. I wonder if there's something nicer on Typekit?"
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