Licenses to Heal

Frank Adebiaye

Translated from the French
by Aviva Cashmira Kakar

The Complexities of the Issue of Conferring Value in Type Design

Licenses for typographical design appeared with the font foundries ITC and Photolettering as a means of according value to type creation and enabling type designers to receive royalties, but never before have font licenses been so entangled with media and technologies. Since the advent of DTP (desktop publishing), graphic designers, publishers and even mere users have become ever more bogged down by increasing modalities, fees, legal complications, all imposed by the foundries and font distributors, whether in the form of OpenType files or cloud distribution. At stake is the conflict between the extension of rights linked to the proliferation of media, on the one hand, and the position in the value chain, on the other, namely the more or less major and direct contribution type design constitutes in terms of an added value for the user.

In terms of the extension of rights, one can distinguish four uses: simple use (printing); incorporation (i.e. within a PDF file); reference (on a webpage); embedding (within an e-book or application). The assessment of their value is at once a variable with complex parameters, such as number of users, machines, or processors on a server (MyFonts). These variations in the methods of valuing from one medium to another raise questions: one can well imagine a user editing a publication that will be released in thousands of copies, as well as a team working on a document with a highly limited distribution. Consequently the sophistication of use is not always in direct relation to the perceived economic advantage obtained from the use of a specific font. Billing for fonts would undoubtedly be more legitimate if it took these factors into account. Moreover, this is already somewhat the case with broadcast licenses (for videos, films, or a TV network): here one takes stock of the economic value of a film or a network, and not merely the level of sophistication of its use, even if, in some cases, highly specific developments must be implemented.

The Inability of EULAs (End-User License Agreements) to Adapt to the Practices of Designers

Behind these poorly adapted indicators, there is an underlying desire to be more in sync with economic realities. But the methods used by the font foundries are often too deeply based on outdated concepts of work organization that are far too monolithic. They are confined within a static logic (top-down framework without any experimentation, etc.), instead of embracing project logic, dynamics and fluctuations, more suited to a designer’s work habits. This divergence is also evident in the way various media are considered that are supposed to be separate: print, Web, or application, while more and more contexts of utilization imply continuous use with simultaneous versions that shift back and forth from one medium to another (CSS Print, Webapp, etc.). Faced with these new challenges, what problems do current license agreements solve?

There are four license profiles, ranging from the least extensive to the most extensive:
– pay-per-use licenses: per-media purchase (Linotype, Commercial Type, etc.), with, in some cases, discounts when purchasing additional media or bundled media (Commercial Type, ProductionType, MyFonts); – intermittent licenses, i.e. purchase of the printed license, rental services for Web use (self-hosting is not allowed), app use purchase, possibly on request (Typofonderie, TypeTogether); – profile-based licenses based upon a set of anticipated uses (freelance, studio, publisher, etc.) as proposed by Rosetta Type; – continual licenses, used in all media without distinction from the outset (Ecra by DSType, SwissTypefaces, OurType, OFA, One-For-All Licenses by Apostrophe Carrois, combined licenses by David Jonathan Ross, Universal Profile by Rosetta Type).

Furthermore, there is a deceptively good idea, at the very least, a good idea that hasn’t been followed through: FontStand. 11 Founded in 2015 by Peter Bil’ak and Andrej Kratky, FontStand is a type-streaming service for distributing fonts based upon the principle of Spotify. They have positioned themselves as an alternative to the major foundries (, FontShop and MyFonts), all currently owned by Monotype, and only work with small independent font foundries. FontStand is a streaming service for desktop fonts (business computers). Consequently it is possible to rent folders for an hour, or month to month. At the end of a year, one obtains permanent possession of the font. While some finds deserve credit, the existence of a rental with progressive rights and methods of sharing remains largely incomplete, since it only covers print use and, as of this writing, only works in an Apple environment. These procedures are more of a financial strategy of the type foundries—who are rightly worried about decreasing profits—rather than a global coherent solution for designers.

So what is the solution?

What about royalty-free licenses such as the SIL Open Font License, Apache license, and those offered by free foundries like Google Fonts, Velvetyne or OSP Foundry? They are available to everyone and, apart from offering mostly free use, offer a high degree of freedom of use in source files. This ease of use is beneficial in a context where budgets and deadlines are increasingly short. In terms of this logic of flexibility, a free font can be the basis of a specific remunerated development, with redistribution under a free license (such as the Virus DejaVu et Virus VujaDe projects of font designer Jonathan Barnbrook, part of the visual identity creation of the Mystetskyi Arsenal).

How do we move forward? It is a matter of going back to the fundamental issues of the foundries, namely removing the contradiction between ease of use and the trust accorded the user. One could thus imagine a font file identification system based on client data and media use (non-blocking stamps) and proportionate usage rights for a targeted audience (depending on the use, i.e. for- or non-profit—see for instance, the Brill typefaces created by John Hudson and Alice Savoie for the eponymous publisher, or Input by David Jonathan Ross, released by FontBureau).

By extending the concept of FontStand, one might moreover implement progressive rights that would enable one to purchase a given font, but also to extend the user license to other media and for other uses. Thus reinvented, font licenses would enable fonts to be seen as they truly are in the beginning of the 21st century—not merely as a set of tools attached to a workspace, but as shared assets that students and designers are invited to sample through special licenses for students and trial licenses established between the graphic designer, their client and the public.