Ubiquitous web font embedding just got a step closer

[Update 1] A couple of months back, I surveyed the scene regarding a long cherished dream of web designers and developers — font linking and embedding.

[Update 2] Opera 10, and Firefox 3.1 now support linking to TrueType and OpenType (but not EOT) in currently shipping alphas or betas.

A short while ago, Mozilla announced that Firefox 3.1 will, along with Safari which already does, support the @font-face mechanism for linking to online TrueType fonts. Internet Explorer already supports (and has done so for years) @font-face font linking, but here’s the catch, not to TrueType fonts — only to EOT font files. EOT, now a proposed W3C specification, incorporates anti copying technology, helping to assuage the fears of font foundries that font linking in browsers would unleash a wave of unlicensed copying of their fonts. Chris Wilson, Platform Architect for Internet Explorer has made it clear that he’s strongly opposed to simple font linking

we (Microsoft) should NOT support direct TTF/​OTF embedding, unless 1) there is some check that the font intended that use to be allowed, which I don’t think there currently is (as it needs to refer to the license agreement), AND 2) other browsers also implement a system that actually ENABLES commercial fonts — those that are allowed to be embedded, but cannot be legally placed directly on a server — to be used

So, is this a return to the stalemate of the 1990s, when both the major browsers supported font linking, only of a completely incompatible type? From a technical point of view, no. Since the same mechanism, @font-face rules, is used to link to TrueType, EOT and other font formats, then it is quite simple to define multiple fonts, and the browser can use the font format it supports. For more on this see my previous article.

But from legal, ethical and business perspectives, there’s still a lot of be considered.

Some considerations — legal, ethical and business

Let’s begin with the ethics and legalities for web designers and developers. Most fonts do not come with a license that allows you to share them. So, by uploading most fonts, regardless of their format, to a server, and linking to them, you are likely to be either breaching your license agreement with the vendor, or copyright laws, or both. And it’s not cool.

But, there are ways in which to obtain licenses, and of course, sources of freely usable fonts. In fact the current situation with font embedding technologies is very much in the favour of the big foundries — as it stops the viral spread of fonts from smaller foundries. For this reason alone I think that the wide adoption of font linking technologies is a very good thing.

So, if font linking to truetype fonts could lead to unlicensed font uses and copyright violations, that shouldn’t be enabled should it?

Infringing and uninfringing uses

There’s a legal and a public policy argument against this.

From a legal perspective, the film industry in the 1970s argued precisely this with regards to video recorders, in the famous and landmark case, Sony versus Universal Studios. In SONY the US Supreme Court found that because a video recorder had “substantial, uninfringing uses” the fact that it also enabled infringing of copyright was not sufficient to make the technology illegal. I’d speculate that this is firmly in the mind of the legal teams advising Apple and the Mozilla Foundation with regards to implementing font linking to truetype fonts. As an aside, it’s arguable that the SONY decision was among the most profound legal decisions of the 20th Century. Not only did it open unbelievably rich new seams for the content industry to mine (the irony that it was those very industries which attempted to almost literally kill the goose that laid the golden egg at its birth), but it’s hard to even imagine the web in a legal regime where all copying unless strictly licensed is unlawful.

Public Policy

From a public policy perspective, I think building DRM for fonts directly into the browser code base, and making this the exclusive mechanism by which fonts may be embedded in a web page is an extremely slippery slope to tread on. If we privilege one kind of intellectual property, fonts, over all others by baking DRM directly into browsers and standards, how long will it be that the film, television, music, photographic and other industries demand equal treatment? The long history of GIF, the RIAA, MIAA, Google Books, and similar situations suggest not long at all. Owners of IP very often jealously guard that all any cost, even to their own long term detriment (see SONY).

[update May 2009]I recently spoke with folks implementing some of these features in real live browsers. One observation was that there’s all kinds of tricky issues trying to bake license checking into a browser. For example, imagine you have a font that is licensed for preview but not editing (that means it can be used to preview a document, but not in an editable document). How should the browser disable user editable aspects of that document, for example comment textareas which display their text using the font? What should browsers do about DOM manipulation of the contents of elements displayed using the font? Should such behavior be standardized? If not, different browsers would respond to such situations differently, leading to a whole new category of potential browser incompatibilities. This developer’s observation was that it’s simply not the appropriate place for license verification to be done.

The web is in many ways simply a giant machine for copying intellectual property (as Kevin Kelly succinctly puts it “The internet is a copy machine. At its most foundational level, it copies every action, every character, every thought we make while we ride upon it”). But as we can see with the long term outcome of SONY, and all the copying, lawful and unlawful on the web, has created enormous value for those who initially might seem most threatened by that copying — content creators. Can font foundries similarly benefit from more liberal copying of their fonts?

A Business Case for liberal font linking

Often times, when people argue for the economic benefits of a change in technology or legal regime, the argument is essentially one that “a rising tide lift all boats”. Which is nice, and often true, but perhaps less than persuasive to the hard heads who run businesses for profit and the benefit of their shareholders (and there is nothing wrong with that might I add), who first and foremost see the threats to existing real revenue, more than the promise of future, possible revenue. But here, in my very naive way, is a suggestion to font foundries as to how font linking technologies, which don’t do much if anything at all to protect against copying, might open significant new revenue streams.

In the Kevin Kelly article I link to above, Better Than Free Kelly details things which have value when something is infinitely reproducible at essentially zero cost (like fonts). What font foundries need to do is think of value they can add that is not reproducible in the same way. What might that be?

Fonts as a Service (FaaS)

Fonts are software. That’s actually why they are covered by copyright laws — it’s not the font itself, but the additional information in the font file that essentially instructs a computer as to how the fonts should be displayed that is protected by copyright. In the software world, we are seeing the continued rise of “Software as a service” or SaaS. How might fonts be turned into a similar model?

As a web site publisher, one of the single biggest marginal costs is bandwidth. Fonts aren’t trivial in size (most common fonts are several hundred KB). And of course, many even highly successful sites are hosted now by third parties, particularly blogging type services like WordPress and TypePad. So, what if font foundries hosted and served fonts. As a developer, you could license individual fonts, all the way to complete font sets.
Licensing could be on a per domain name basis, with graduated packages up to unlimited domain name licenses.
Licensing levels could also include an amount of bandwidth, or number of hits on font files.

Access rights could be pretty easily managed using a key, just like Google Maps, and a great many other online services currently do.

I can imagine services like TypePad, Blogger and WordPress offering their users fonts from various foundries, and web hosting companies offering licenses to fonts for people who use their hosting services.

And of course, all of this would be recurring revenue. By reasonably pricing their licenses, foundries would attract customers who rarely if ever buy fonts, and gain indefinite recurring revenue from them.

The use of a wide variety of fonts would proliferate, giving rise to greater demand for fonts across the board.

And all of this is unlocked as soon as we have in place a widespread, easy to use technical mechanism for embedding fonts in most web browsers. Which the recent implementation in Safari and Firefox 3 will usher in.

To wrap up, a simple question comes to mind. In the decade or more since font linking was first available in browsers, just how much fscking money have foundries left on the table? I speculate that the answer is billions of dollars.
So, my humble suggestion to foundries is — you’ve had ten years in which the only way in which font linking was available was in such a way as it protected your rights. How’s that been working for you? In the last 10 years, the number of professionals in graphic design (if we include web design in that category) would have grown by orders of magnitudes. And so logically, should have your revenues from fonts. I suspect they haven’t. So, maybe it’s time to try something new. The web would definitely be a better place for it, and I suspect your shareholders would love you for it.

How about it?

31 responses to “Ubiquitous web font embedding just got a step closer”:

  1. You read my mind.

    At Clearleft we’ve come to exactly the same conclusion as you (meaning that Richard, the smart one, has been thinking about this and has come to the same conclusion):

    Access rights could be pretty easily managed using a key, just like Google Maps, and a great many other online services currently do.”

    The fact that there is no same-​​domain policy on font-​​face declarations opens up a *huge* revenue stream for font foundries. And yet, like the music and film industries before them, they seem to be blind to the opportunities, focusing only on short-​​term, forest-​​for-​​the-​​trees thinking.

    Also, I agree 100% that intellectual property and data formats need to remain fundamentally separate. Chris’s arguments for EOT ring very hollow in light of the fact that Internet Explorer allows the embedding of .gif, .jpg and other formats that can be (and are) used to copy and share unlicensed content every day.

  2. Great piece, as it very clearly explained to me why this hasn’t happened yet. On my optimistic days I think it’s astonishing how much companies like that (font foundries, the music industry at large, etc.) seem to just hate the people who pay them. On my less optimistic days, I’m convinced it’s more than just dislike of their own potential customers, it’s also utter ignorance of their own business.

    Also I couldn’t agree more with Jeremy, above, when he says that Chris’s arguments ring hollow. It’s not even “other formats” that are at issue because even something as simple as reproducing a string of words one after the other can be copyright infringement (plagiarism).

  3. @Allsop

    But, there are ways in which to obtain licenses, and of course, sources of freely usable fonts. In fact the current situation with font embedding technologies is very much in the favour of the big foundries — as it stops the viral spread of fonts from smaller foundries. For this reason alone I think that the wide adoption of font linking technologies is a very good thing.”

    What do you mean? I don’t agree/​disagree, I’m just fuzzy on what you’re trying to say. Could you clarify?

    Also, the spec for creating EOT’s was submitted to the W3C. More recently, Bill Hill of Microsoft reports that a Working Group is being formed to take a look at it.
    In the meantime, my impression is that the code and/​or spec for creating EOT’s has been made available by MS free of copyright or other claims, for anyone to use, no strings attached.

    • By: john
    • October 20th, 2008

    Hi Richard,

    thanks for the question — I really didn’t explain the point well, and I think it is an important one.

    If web developers could use fonts from any foundry which licensed them for such use on their sites, I think this would open up huge opportunities for smaller foundries. In the same way that design memes such as color combinations, rounded corners, column layouts and so on can spread like wild fire, so too could the use of fonts from even individual font developers.

    But as things stand, because there is no widely implemented mechanism for font embedding, this can’t occur.

    So in this way, the large foundries benefit from a static, largely unchanging market for fonts.

    That’s probably still not very well expressed, but hopefully is a little clearer?

    Re EOT and IP, here’s what the preamble to the proposal says

    should the Submission be used as a contribution towards a W3C Activity, Microsoft grants a right and license of the same scope to any derivative works prepared by the W3C and based on, or incorporating all or part of, the contribution

    and

    [Microsoft] the W3C Advisory Committee agrees to offer licenses according to the W3C Royalty-​​Free licensing requirements described in section 5 of the 5 February 2004 W3C Patent Policy for any portion of the Submission that is subsequently incorporated in a W3C Recommendation

    That means at present there is no grant of rights or license, and so, I speculate that Apple, Mozilla and anyone else who wishes to implement EOT would need to negotiate such a license.

    Which would explain completely why neither Safari nor Mozilla have as yet implemented EOT.

    My best guess about how this will go forward is that IE will continue to only support font linking with EOT, while other browsers will for the foreseeable future not support EOT (then again my predictions are invariably wrong ;-)

    This is inconvenient, but such a situation would allow for font linking and embedding using a standard based approach for the significant majority of web browsers in current use.

    • By: john
    • October 20th, 2008

    Hi Meitar,

    thanks.

    I tend to try and understand the decisions of companies, and other entities, not in terms of human characteristics like motive and emotions, but in institutional terms. Typically within any large organisation, decisions are made by collectives like committees, which naturally tends toward conservatism. This is particularly the case for industry organisations like the RIAA, which represents the interests of potentially dozens of competing companies within an industry.

    The goal of a company is to create profit for its shareholders. The management of that company is given the responsibility of doing so — and usually metrics for success or failure are short term — a quarter, half a year, or a year. So you can see how someone with the responsibility for the fonts division of a large company with bankable revenue, whose performance is measured in the time frame of months, might not be too enamored of a technological change that perceivably threatens that revenue stream (for instance in this case, by raising the chances of unlicensed copying of fonts, and so diminishing sales — a threat I think is greatly over estimated).

    • By: Lisa
    • October 20th, 2008

    Terrific article.

    What we need is a test case–and an adventurous foundry and one or more ubiquitous blogging platform(s) to get things rolling.

  4. If web developers could use fonts from any foundry which licensed them for such use on their sites, I think this would open up huge opportunities for smaller foundries. In the same way that design memes such as color combinations, rounded corners, column layouts and so on can spread like wild fire, so too could the use of fonts from even individual font developers.

    I’m not really sure about this — wouldn’t the infrastructure needed to host /​ server fonts make it out of reach of the smaller foundries? I’m sure they don’t want to spend a decent sum of money setting up the software and scalable hardware to serve the handful of fonts they have available.

    In which case, they’d probably have to license them through one of the big foundries, or a large font-​​distribution site, which means it isn’t entirely to the benefit of the small foundries at all.

    However, I may just have missed your point too ;)

    • By: john
    • October 20th, 2008

    Guy,

    it wouldn’t require the smaller foundries to host these fonts, merely to license them for others to host them on their own servers.

    However, if a smaller foundry did want to go down the FaaS road, then something like Amazon Web Services would be ideal — they provide infrastructure and scaleable bandwidth on an as needs basis.

    john

  5. […] Ubiquitous web font embedding just got a step closer […]

    • By: Will
    • October 23rd, 2008

    I disagree with the notion that having foundries offer up fonts in a SaaS would be sufficient, from a technical standpoint; relying on yet another 3rd party server creates potential bottlenecks at best, and failure to consistently provide services at worst. Many sites are already integrating content and services from others, be it stats tracking, database services, ad serving, and more. DNS resolution takes time, and the speed of each service provider does become an issue. Caching can reduce the bottleneck, but studies have shown users tend to not have much patience when first visiting a site that takes a long time to load (the first impression is a lasting one).

    I realize font designers need to monetize and protect their assets, but the end result should be a smooth experience for the end users, otherwise it just becomes another product usage limitation (such as DRM’d music — look at Walmart’s failed mp3 store for an example).

    There has to be a better model.

  6. […] read this article about ubiquitous web font embedding last night.  He says with @font-face on the rise, the major issue is foundires trying to build DRM […]

    • By: John
    • October 27th, 2008

    Hi Will,

    good point about the technical impact of yet another linked file on site performance. I think that intelligent caching might help this somewhat. There are interesting challenges for browser developers around how pages render while fonts are bring downloaded — I’m keen to know how IE, Safari and Firefox currently handle this.

    But, for those who wish to or need to serve their own fonts, I don’t see my suggested model as being inconsistent with self hosted fonts. Indeed, I expect foundries would consider this a premium product, and charge the design firms, hosting companies, service providers, and larger enterprises who wished to serve their own fonts a nice premium for the privilege.

    The principle reason I put forward this proposal was because, in reality, the way we’ll get decent typography on the web, will be by through combination of the technical capacity (such as @font-face linking) and more liberal licensing — the latter is a decision up to the font foundries, and the former will go much better with their “blessing”. I think promising a great increase in business down the track by giving stuff away is less likely to convince rights holders, than demonstrating a practical business model, which what I am proposing really is.

  7. […] Ubiquitous web font embedding just got a step closer | Web Directions […]

  8. Google Chrome Beta 2 supports @font-face.
    When FF 3.x ships, support will be accross the board.

  9. […] a new wave of browser support will finally offer designers more control over fonts on the web. A particularly cogent article from John Allsopp, followed by frequent conversations with him, helped us understand that there was […]

  10. […] service which will provide vetted fonts that you can include in your site’s stylesheet using the @font-face mechanism. That’s where Typekit comes in. We’ve been working with foundries to develop a […]

  11. […] Soon enough, @font-face CSS at-​​​rule sup­port will come to all major browsers, so use of non-​​​traditional web fonts will increase. If this catches on, the web in 2010 might look a lot dif­fer­ent than it does now—I wonder who will be the first major online con­tent provider to use it? ¶ May 28, 2009 in design, links and tech » tags: tech typography web design » « The New New Times Square […]

  12. […] readers will know of my near fixation with embeddable/​downloadable fonts on the web, as now supported in Safari, Firefox 3.5 and Opera […]

  13. […] a new wave of browser support will finally offer designers more control over fonts on the web. A particularly cogent article from John Allsopp, followed by frequent conversations with him, helped us understand that there was […]

  14. […] control their proliferation and keep detailed statistics on how their typefaces are getting used. John Allsopp, a Web developer and blogger who has consulted with Typekit, says that we might see fonts go […]

  15. […] Ubiquitous web font embedding just got a step closer — Web Directions […]

  16. […] service which will provide vetted fonts that you can include in your site’s stylesheet using the @font-face mechanism. That’s where Typekit comes in. We’ve been working with foundries to develop a […]

  17. […] a blog about web fonts. • The Potential of Web Typography by Ian Lynam & Craig Mod. • Article about web font embedding by John Allsopp. […]

  18. […] ubiquitous web font embedding just got a step closer […]

  19. […] Ubiquitous web font embedding just got a step closer […]

  20. […] to all designers since it’s built into the web language itself. But it also creates some legal concerns for the font vendors that will need to be sorted […]

  21. The font foundries needed to unify and hire even one person who understands the W3C. They could have created an open implementation that supports licensed fonts, probably as a fork of WebKit. If obtaining a license was as simple as requesting access to a font company’s CDN for a specific font, they likely could have gotten popular support in addition to standards support.

    I suspect the only remaining opportunity for them to make any money is the CDN angle. If a font foundry is willing to provide a fast CDN for their fonts, and charge a license fee based on the REFERER [sic] the browser sends, they stand to make substantial money in license fees from large companies who want to use more than the free fonts on solid legal ground in a high-​​performance manner.

    Without that I think unfortunately font designers will simply not be rewarded for their fonts used online.

  22. […] Ubiquitous Web Font Embedding Just Got a Step Closer – John Allsopp […]

  23. […] ubiquitous web font embedding just got a step closer […]

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