by Thomas Phinney
Last year I posted about free fonts on the web, and briefly mentioned (in the penultimate paragraph) a new CSS-based approach to allow referencing of specific fonts on web servers from HTML web pages. This approach, promoted by CSS co-inventor and Opera CTO Häkon Lie, seems to be gaining momentum, with suport now coming in Safari via WebKit. My personal take on this is two-fold: for the actual end-users, folks designing/producing web pages, it is far too limited because 95%+ of all fonts can’t legally be used in this way; for font vendors it’s scary because it gives users a reason to make retail fonts publicly accessible on Web servers. In reponse to this, Microsoft has now offered to donate their old EOT web font embedding format to the W3C.
One thing that’s been odd is that nobody has really asked typical Web designers/developers what they think of the different solutions for fonts on the Web, and how they’d do things in this brave new world. To try to correct that problem, I have created the following anonymous survey: Click Here to take the survey.
If you’re a font vendor, I have a different survey here just for you.
So, let’s dig into the details, shall we. The CSS “@font-face” solution using the original fonts is certainly simple. Stick a TrueType (or OpenType) .ttf or .otf font on a server, reference it in your CSS, and in a cooperating browser the text will simply get rendered in the specified font. So what’s wrong with that?
- Fonts are intellectual property, governed by licenses. The licenses of all retail fonts vendors we’ve looked at (about 30 so far) do not allow this sort of usage which is tantamount to free distribution. Although there are many free fonts as well, they represent something like 2%-5% of all fonts.
- As initially rolled out, the mechanism only works with TrueType fonts. No OpenType CFF, no Type 1 (“PostScript”). However, further discussions with proponents suggest that it might be extended to OpenType CFF (.otf). [Update: although not iniitally promoted as supporting OpenType CFF, the WebKit implementation reportedly works fine with that format as well.]
- If it’s being done legally, it would only use open source or similarly freely redistributable fonts. But Web designers who are working with an existing organizational identity already have fonts they need to use to maintain that identity online. 99% of those can’t be (legally) used in this fashion. The argument that there are thousands of free fonts so who needs retail fonts ignores the fact that most of the fonts web designers want or even need to use are not free fonts.
- Of all fonts, probably only 3%-5% could legally be used in this way.
- There are only the tiniest handful of “free fonts” that come in even a basic set of regular, italic, bold and bold italic fonts.
- The number of “free fonts” of decent quality is incredibly small. It’s perfectly possible for people to make high quality free fonts, and there are a few out there. But the majority are made by amateurs and are of abysmal quality. Ascender Corp did an analysis of over 4000 free fonts available online, and found massive problems just at a technical level, let alone aesthetic.
- Based on all the above, I believe that if this new feature is widely used, it will lead to either a major increase in illegal font usage, a major decrease in the quality of Web typography, or most likely, both.
I’ll take a moment to critique a few specific points made by Håkon Lie in the pieces linked at the end of this article:
- He cited “Goodfish” as an example of a good free font family. Goodfish fails standard tests of its TrueType hinting tables. It doesn’t have even the basic MacRoman or WinANSI single-byte character set. A couple of glyphs lie about their encodings. Glyph weights are inconsistent. As free fonts go, it’s above average, but it’s not usable for body text, and personally I wouldn’t use it for headlines.
- “Although the legal status of font shapes is uncertain….” Not particularly. Font shapes can be explicitly protected by design patent in the USA (the very first design patent ever issued was for a font), or by copyright in many other countries (e.g. most of Europe). When instantiated in a digital font, the result is protected by copyright as software in both the USA and Europe. These principles have been upheld in court.
- “…font names are probably covered by copyright law.” Like other product names, font names are normally covered by trademark law, not copyright law.
So what about the .EOT font format? This was originally created by Microsoft, but they are offering to give the format to the W3C as an open format. Because it involves some degree of encryption and doesn’t put entire font files loose on a Web server, font vendors seem to be more okay with it. Perhaps half of all retail fonts could be used legally on Web pages with the EOT format. EOT format fonts can also specify what URLs/domains the fonts can be used with. End users would still need to check their licensing terms, but the process of creating EOT files also checks font embedding bits, meaning that some fonts simply can’t be used with it (because their vendors don’t want their fonts used in such ways).
The funny thing about EOT is that Microsoft actually introduced it many years ago. The problem was, it was a proprietary Microsoft format, so it was only supported in Internet Explorer (and not even in the last Mac version of IE). You needed to run a custom Microsoft tool called WEFT (“Web Embedding Font Tool,” only on Windows, of course) to make EOT files from fonts. EOT was in competition with another equally proprietary format, Bitstream’s TrueDoc with its .pfr files. Neither one was well supported by common HTML/Web development/design tools, and neither became particularly popular.
Of course, an open spec for EOT and an added decade of pent-up demand might make a substantial difference. It remains to be seen how all this will play out at the W3C.
- Good summary article on Typographica
- Original article by Håkon Lie, framing the problem in terms of Microsoft having a “web font monopoly.”
- Joe Clark’s blog summary of Microsoft’s Si Daniels talking about Web font embedding at the ATypI Brighton 2007 conference.
- Latest article from Håkon Lie, also linked above.
- WebKit support for @font-face tag and original fonts on a Web server, also linked above.