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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?

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