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Font linking, type foundries, and DRM

Chris Shiflett recently wrote a great article summing up the current state of font linking.  Font linking is simply using the @font-face statement in CSS to link to a font file, which can then be used by the browser to render text.  Though the specification has been in CSS2 for over a decade, font linking has been getting some buzz lately because it will soon be supported by Firefox (version 3.1).  It is already supported by IE6/7 (though with some aliasing issues) and Safari 3.  The point that really struck me was after showing a simple example of font linking, Chris says:

Pretty easy, right? Yes, but so is downloading an MP3. It’s when you start considering the rights of type foundries that things get a little more complicated.

I think this is an excellent point.  From what I’ve gathered, the type industry is very similar to the record industry before the proliferation of MP3 (I was there for this).  Just as the major record labels had contracts with the most popular artists, type foundries hold the licenses on the most popular fonts.

The way I see it, the type foundries are lucky.  They can learn from the mistakes of the record labels and take a proactive approach.  The record labels have already shown that suing children and their grandmothers doesn’t work.  Font linking is inevitable and these large companies have an opportunity to reposition themselves before they become the irrelevant middleman.

I believe that once Firefox 3.1 is released, we will start seeing web designers and developers using font linking on their blogs.  These are always the early adopters.  Over the next few years, the proportion of users using web browsers that support font linking will be high enough that frontend developers will start using font linking in their client projects.  There will be no more need for sIFR and the web will be a better place.

From what I understand, type foundries currently turn a profit distributing fonts and selling licenses. When font linking kicks in and you can pluck font files from just about anywhere, the font distribution business will change, much like the music distribution business has.  Enter Apple iTunes.  Although music piracy is still rampant, iTunes is still able to turn huge profits (estimated $570M last year) distributing music.  Apple sells their music a bit cheaper but with a stricter license.  Of course Apple also enforces their licenses with DRM, but I believe that iTunes would be just as successful (possibly more successful) without DRM.

Type foundries first have to change their licensing model.  Currently, they license fonts like software, restricting use to a fixed number of workstations.  Instead, they could license how the fonts are used. They could sell “web-only” licenses allowing customers to license use of the font on their web site.  To use the font in print, customers would have to purchase a different license.  It might also be a good idea to have an even further discounted (or free) license for non-profits and personal use.

One thing is for sure, if the type foundries take the same route as the record labels and choose to fight piracy instead of better accomadating customers, they will be fighting a losing battle.

  • http://northstudio.com Rene

    What type foundries should do is host the fonts and sell the access. CSS @font-face permits external hosted fonts, and with type foundries hosting them and selling licenses/access sounds like a better solution for everyone. That way they control font usage per domain (or something like that). I’m sure that can’t be too technically difficult.

  • http://bradt.ca/ Brad

    Yea, I’ve heard that proposition before but I don’t like it. I have little faith that the type foundries would do a good job hosting the fonts. And what happens when one shuts down? It’s MSN Music all over again.

  • Rene

    It’s really no big deal if it failed. I would just revert back to a web font. Just like with sIFR — if you don’t have it, no biggie. Not visually perfect, but at least nothing breaks and functionality is maintained.

    I’m not saying it’s perfect, but at least it’s somewhat of a middle ground.

    Being a bit of a type freak, I’m concerned at how type, more than any other art, is taken for granted. It’s almost like everyone expect fonts to be free. And that can last forever if we want access to quality fonts.

  • http://bradt.ca/ bradt

    If the font is slow to load (or fails), it will add a lot of lag to your web site which is a very big deal. And again, what happens if they close up shop? All customers get screwed out of their money.

    I certainly appreciate the problem of fonts being taken for granted but I believe that a font store that delivers a pleasant experience and sensible licenses is what is needed. I completely disagree that any type of DRM will be an effective solution.

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