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Why Fonts on the Web Are a Copyright Mess

Why Fonts on the Web Are a Copyright Mess

Font ImageIf you design websites, you know well that the list of Web-safe fonts, though having grown some over the years, is very short compared to the number of fonts available in the world.

In fact, only a fraction of a percent of all fonts created are available to Web designers. Though, considering how hideous some fonts are that might actually be a good thing to a degree, there’s not much doubt that the Web would be a more vibrant and more readable place with more options available.

One cause of this has been the technical challenges that make adding more fonts difficult, including the fact that different operating systems have different fonts installed by default and installing fonts has, historically, been difficult to do,

However, there’s also been a set of legal obstacles that have prevented an explosion in Web fonts and kept many of the most popular fonts in the world from being truly web safe.

What can be done about this? First we have to understand the problem and then look at what others are doing to make the Web a much more exciting place for font lovers.

Fonts, the Web and Copyright

Scalable fonts, meaning the kind you use on your computer, are considered to be copyrighted pieces of software, under the law. This means that they qualify for copyright protection and can not be shared between computers without a license.

However, before the Web, this generally wasn’t a problem. In the print world, you could easily use a font without distributing it. A graphic designer, for example, would download a font, use it in a design and could then print and copy the work without having to distribute a copy of the font with every copy of the work.

This, in turn, lead to a very lucrative industry of making and selling fonts to designers, often times for hundreds of dollars per font. Operating system developers, including Microsoft and Apple, had to either develop fonts in house or license them from third parties to include them in their operating systems, a big part of why there are different fonts in different OSes.

But while the system worked reasonably well for font designers, the Web created a new series problems. With the Web, unless the font is used within an image, every person who views the font has to have a copy of it installed. Without it, the browser does not know how to display the font on the screen and has to default to a different font instead.

This meant Web designers couldn’t use a font without either doing one of the following:

  1. Putting the Text in An Image: This method hides the text from the search engines and isn’t practical for large sections of copy.
  2. Having the User Install the Font: This method requires a lot of work and, possibly, some expense on the part of the user. This simply is not realistic to ask of someone who just wants to view a website.

Since neither solution is practical. this forced Web designers to stick to using fonts that were available on nearly all computers, which is a fairly small selection, and that is the way it has been for most of the history of the Web. However, a few companies are trying to change that and are making progress in doing so.

Rising Solutions to the Font Problem

To help deal with this issue of sharing fonts on the Web, two popular services have worked to expand the number of fonts a designer can use with their layouts.

The first is Typekit, a company that has partnered with several professional font libraries to, according to their site, let designers use “real fonts” on the Web. The idea is fairly simple, you subscribe to Typekit’s services, select the fonts that you want and then add references to them in your CSS and the fonts should appear correctly on your site.

The second is Google’s Font API, which functions similarly to Typekit but works with free and open source fonts only. Though there are no professional font libraries, users can add any font available simply by linking to the relevant stylesheet and then adding the correct CSS code, no cost or subscription is necessary.

But while both of these font solutions work well, Typekit even being trusted by and Posterous, their reliance on third-party services raises issues of reliability and longevity. Most designers would rather have their fonts under their roof rather than contracting them out.

On that front, CSS3 enables designers to embed fonts using a style sheet and then call on it later. However, current support for that standard is weak at best, as with most of CSS3. There is also a new file format, WOFF, that seeks to streamline and standardize how fonts are distributed online.

However, font embedding may raise a slew of other copyright issues as some designers may unwittingly embed and distribute fonts that they don’t have a license to. This, in turn, could result in takedown notices and even lawsuits over font distribution.

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Fortunately, as more and more open source and otherwise free to use fonts become available, this will likely become less and less of an issue, that is, save for certain key fonts that, though common and loved, are still only available commercially. This includes Helvetica and Times New Roman among others.

(Note: Times New Roman is widely considered a web-safe font as it is included in both Windows and Mac, though many variations may not be.)

All in all though, font embedding may only be the end of the technical challenges in using fonts and it might be the true beginning of the copyright battles over fonts online.

Bottom Line

In the end, fonts are a classic example of a technology that is undergoing a drastic change in the digital age. The way fonts used to work and were distributed simply does not function on the Web and that raises a series of legal and business model challenges for font creators.

Designers, unfortunately, are caught in the middle. With only a limited number of fonts being truly “web safe” available and solutions for using other fonts being mere workarounds, the font situation online is still fairly ugly, though rapidly improving from a technical standpoint at least.

That being said, the legal fight over fonts online may have truly just begun as the standards that may truly open the floodgates to new fonts are still being built into browsers. It’s very likely we’ll be hearing more about fonts and copyright in the coming years, especially as designers try to make more broad use of them in their creations.

Your Questions

Have a question about the law and freelance writing? Either leave a comment below or contact me directly if you wish to keep the information private (However, please mention that it is a suggestion for The Blog Herald. This column will be determined largely by your suggestions and questions so let me know what you want to know about.


I am not an attorney and nothing in this article should be taken as legal advice.

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