Ethics and Abandonware

Rob BarbaRob Barba Posts: 69
edited December 2021 in Type Business
Okay, I just came across a unique situation which I'd like to share and get some opinions on.
I recently had someone contact me about a potential commission for recreating and expanding a recent font whose creator seems to have vanished in the wind. The font in question is Spaceman, created back in 2005 by Faktor I.  The guy apparently tried to contact the original designer/foundry, but they seem to have absolutely vanished; and even the website is currently one of those "buy this domain" specials now (my own investigation shows the site hasn't been live since 2012.)  The copy the potential client (PC) sent me had no contact information other than that.
I told him I was hesitant to "revive" a modern font, but that I would see what I could do.  I then went down the rabbit hole and downloaded a copy from another site (the PC said he got his from DaFont) and the metadata has an entirely different domain on it (designsalon.de, which redirects to ds03.de.)  The designer's name matches that of the owner of the site, and while the font in question isn't listed in the body of work, I suspect this is the guy who did it.  I pointed the PC in the direction of this guy and told him this would likely be the guy to ask.
Now, granted, I don't think the PC was trying to rip off anyone or do anything nefarious; I just don't think there was enough due diligence involved.  But it does make me wonder: what do you do about abandonware (as this font appeared to be at first)?  Personally, if it's a font from a century ago, no problem with revival.  I don't even have an issue with reviving something from the 70s back before computers (I've done it before, though in that case I put the completed font out for free, as I felt it wasn't my best work.)  But a font that's less than 20 years old?  Really not comfortable with that, especially if I can track down the creator.  But what if you can't?  There are tons of fonts on DaFont and other sites made back in the early 2000s whose creators seem to have vanished in the wind and some of them cry out for updating for some reasons or another.  Personal updating?  Yeah.  "Fan updating", where a free copy gets put out there?  Arguably okay, IMO.  But to put the work into it to create something out of whole cloth, to the point that you can make a reasonable point to sell it yourself?  What do you do then?
I know my stance on it, as ambivalent as it is, but I'm curious to see what others thing.  I know I've heard the same old "Anything less than fifty years old is taboo" from other designers, but that was meant for known fonts with ostensibly someone watching over it.  But what do you do about a font like Ashley, a font from 1991 where there's zero info at all?
Note that I'm also talking about the ethics here; as far as I know, the law (at least here in the US) is somewhat murky, as while the letter forms aren't copyrightable, the program (the font itself) is, so someone in theory owns it, but then we get into the abandonware argument again and, well...you get the picture. 

Comments

  • I think that the copyright for literary works, which although I am not a lawyer seems in the past and present to have extended to computer programs – including font files, lasts for the lifetime of the author, plus 70 years. By this definition, there is no digital font data at all that could be reused in a new font, without the copyright holder’s explicit consent, or the consent of their estate. It does not seem to me that there is a legal definition of “abandonware” that would allow font data produced in 1991 or 2005 (or at any other time; the oldest digital fonts are from around 1968, I think) to be reused today. It would not be a violation of copyright law to redraw letterforms from scratch that you viewed in a font produced in 1968, 1991, 2005, or (probably) yesterday.

    That does not answer your question about ethics, though. I think that there may be some consensus in the broad typographic community that even typefaces designed in 1990s by designers who died shortly thereafter are still too recent to be obviously quoted in new works. That is my impression, anyway. Despite what I read as a broad consensus, however, many type designers and font engineers will surely tell you that they have another opinion on that matter.

    In at least one lecture I recall, John Downer said that one should avoid reviving typefaces that are younger than 100 years old.
  • @Rob Barba I'd have done exactly what you did.  Helped the client out by doing a little more research (I think it's reasonable that a lay person didn't know to look at the meta data) and then sent them on their way.  If it really was fully abandoned, which can happen, and it was the sort of work we take think I'd have taken it.  But that didn't happen so we don't know.
  • Btw, we did have something similar to this happen with a client this year.  The client had an old font they'd commissioned from URW that needed fixing.  They started with asking Monotype to do it but were very unhappy with the service and so went looking for someone else to help.

    We sometimes get calls like this because there's an old blog post with a list of foundries not owned by Monotype that we're on.  I generally take pity on such clients but try to send them away with the minimum of effort on our part, because these aren't our sorts of jobs.

    We did exactly what you did, but the situation was slightly different because the meta data was clearly wrong based on other information from the client.  I liked the client and so I agreed to take a consulting job to evaluate their fonts, something we've never done before.  It's not the sort of work we do but I enjoyed it for exactly that reason, stretched my brain a bit.
  • Personally, I stay away from messing with third party font files. You never really know what the story is, and I'd rather not get into hot water (legal or ethical). 

    I think this will be a very interesting question 60 or seventy years from now. Will there be something like adverse possession / squatter's rights / finders keepers for digital products? 
  • For me Spaceman looks like artwork, thus protected as graphical art until 70 years after dead of the creator.

    Fonts per se are not programs, thus not protectable as literary works.

    Similar typeface, but also few glyphs: 

    Electrolize https://fonts.google.com/specimen/Electrolize#standard-styles

  • Stephen ColesStephen Coles Posts: 925
    edited December 2021
    BTW, Spaceman itself is essentially a stretched out EF Handel Gothic. I’ll bet the designer started with that or another version of Handel Gothic.
  • Nick ShinnNick Shinn Posts: 1,846
    It has a neophyte quality, which may or may not be required in any revisiting.
    For instance, the “wrong” \f, with its crossbar not at x-height, is typical of the work of students I’ve taught type design to, as part of general design courses at York University and Humber College. Mind you, Roger Excoffon also did such things (Antique Olive), from a position of great sophistication…
  • Cory MaylettCory Maylett Posts: 197
    edited December 2021
    To avoid outright copying, it’s important to work by eye, from scratch (which shouldn’t be too hard for a pseudo-Spaceman), and follow one’s own taste in the genre, no matter that the result diverges from the model.

    I agree with Nick on this.

    Spaceman looks like a beginning effort from someone. It's very mechanical and based around a simple grid the designer rigidly adhered to — even in those instances, such as the l and the j, that didn't lend themselves to the grid. Other glyphs look like mistakes, such as the width difference between the p and the q.

    Use Spaceman for inspiration, but redraw the entire thing from scratch and make whatever changes are needed to make the final font better. Besides, Spaceman only has lowercase letters, which means, I assume, you'll be designing the uppercase anyway. As @Stephen Coles mentioned, there are already several similar fonts.

    There's no need to recreate Spaceman. Design something similar, better, and without the problems in Spaceman. You might need to convince the client, but that shouldn't be too difficult if you point out the issues you'll be fixing and the improvements you'll make.
  • Look at it, close your eyes, then draw it fresh, but better :)
  • I agree with everyone that there is no problem with you drawing a font in this style. The Spaceman font is not even that unique. You can make it, but better. However, I will just add that I hope the name of that font is pronounced like that of Dr. Leo Spaceman --- well, it is for me now, and maybe also for you :)
Sign In or Register to comment.