Fonts speak words to the eye
Jose Santa Clara, Autohagiographer
Remember the good old days when we could buy a digital typeface (font) or collection for a reasonable price and didn’t have to worry about anything? Going back 25 years I shelled out $50 here and $50 there (typically for a collection of 20 to 30 fonts), even $200 once, for a impressive collection of fonts which I have used routinely for printing books, newsletters, reports, brochures, business cards, office documents, and the like for all these years. It never occurred to me that I couldn’t use such fonts for anything and everything. But at the least, it was understood that buying the font was for the purpose of unlimited publishing.
Today it’s a new ballgame. With the recent advent of smart phones, tablets, book apps, ebooks, and commercial PDF publishing, there are suddenly many more ways to use fonts that may or may not be covered by the old licensing under which we bought the fonts for print publishing. And we’ll never know what our original licensing provisions were. Who keeps the licensing documents—especially for 25 years?
It’s time to start over and pay again, and pay for each use. Here are some of the probable uses (in addition to print) requiring an appropriate license:
- Embedded in a website using the @font function of CSS 3
- Embedded in ebooks
- Embedded in each ebook
- Embedded in ezines
- Embedded in each ezine
- Embedded in book apps
- Embedded in each book app
- Embedded in software
- Embedded in each program
- Embedded in PDFs
- Embedded in each PDF
- Embedded in a server
For all of the above the cost may depend on the traffic (e.g., website), the volume published (e.g., book apps), or the duration (e.g., one year). There might be a different price for each or a price that covers certain groupings (e.g., ebooks and PDFs).
For many fonts, just understanding the pricing is a challenge. For instance, if you publish a book as an ebook, the font is usually reasonably priced. But if you publish the book as a book app instead, it usually comes under the “embedded in software” category which is typically priced very high (e.g., up to thirty times – 30x – the price of ebook embedding) thus punishing those who publish information in such a form.
If you buy a font costing $300 (10x the desktop font) for using in book apps (treated as software), it might cover all book apps you publish, or you might have to pay separately for each title or each year. And what have we been talking about? Just one typestyle of one typeface (one font). Typically we use four typestyles (four fonts) of each typeface. Thus, to use one typeface (text) with four typestyles in a book app could cost $1,200 for each title @10x (or as much as $3,600 @ 30x). Throw in a different font for headings, and the fare goes up even more. This is a tough sale for font makers to make.
But that’s not the worst. After all, it’s only money. The worst is understanding and keeping track of the licensing agreements. Most licensing agreements are incomprehensible. Just when you think you’ve understood the licensing for using the font one way, three months or three years later you want to use it another way; and you can’t figure out whether you’re covered or have to buy the font again. In many cases, you can’t even get prices for some ordinary uses without contacting the font maker for special pricing. And don’t think that at one website operated by one font maker that all the licensing agreements are the same (as you might expect). They vary widely from font to font.
And what about the colophon? A colophon has been used in printed books to inform the world about the typographical aspects of one’s book design—to give credit to typographers. With the uncertain legalities of digital publishing, the colophon becomes an invitation to litigation. It’s not something you will want to include in a digital book.
The bottom line is that using fonts for digital information presentations is a legal nightmare, not to mention in many cases it entails comparatively outrageous pricing. When I call it a legal nightmare, I am understating the case because there are additional issues I haven’t covered in this post.
What is one to do?
Well, the problem seems to be partially solved by subscription services for website embedded fonts (e.g., fonts.com – http://fonts.com). But that’s limited to website font embedding. It’s not a comprehensive solution.
The answer seems to be fonts provided under free licensing agreements. It’s not that free fonts are such a good deal. I certainly don’t mind paying for fonts, and I respect the talent that goes into top quality font making. But many free licensing agreements are worry free. You can use the fonts for anything once you have them. You don’t have to consult your attorney every time you want to put one of your fonts to use.
It’s true that free licensing agreements can be just as arcane as commercial licensing agreements. But there are a limited number of standard agreements that you can learn and keep in mind (e.g., SIL open font license – http://www.sil.org/). What you are looking for are standard agreements that allow all uses of a font.
Without doing a survey of everything available under free licensing, three sources stand out. One is Google Fonts (http://www.google.com/fonts). Another is Font Squirrel (http://www.fontsquirrel.com/). The third is Dafont (http://www.dafont.com/). All are nice collections. At these locations you can find a wide selection available. They are not only worry free—administration free—but price free too. Seems too good to be true.
In fact, some of these fonts are not very high quality. But many are excellent. With careful choosing, these sources are good places to pick up a set of basic fonts for information publishing and even some display fonts with remarkable personalities. These are not the only free licensing sources, although they’re great places to start your search.
What the font industry needs is a standard understandable commercial font licensing scheme that everyone can come to know. In fact, there are such licensing schemes for free licensing. One would hope that the industry can come up with something for paid licensing that would benefit not only publishers but also font makers who want establish an expansive market for their fonts.
In my particular case, I have a reasonable budget for buying fonts for my startup publishing business. I have no time for deciphering licensing agreements and keeping track of a myriad of legal provisions. Consequently, I have assembled the basic fonts I need from Google Fonts and Font Squirrel. I’ve spent some time separating the wheat from the chaff, something I would have preferred not to do. Yet I‘ve not had to spend a dime, something I was willing to do.
I’m just one very small publishing business. There are tens of thousands of us, however, and only hundreds of larger publishers. One would think there’s a market of folks like me sadly neglected.
What I suspect is that there’s a ample amount of pirating going on by those who can’t slow down to play the font makers legal games but who otherwise would buy fonts. This is not good for the font makers, but it’s not good for publishers either. Publishers need high quality fonts and innovation in typography and are willing to pay for them, understanding that a monetary incentive works well. Nonetheless, an incoherent, misaligned, and inefficient exchange system will always give rise to black markets, smuggling, and pirating. And that’s where we seem to be today with commercial fonts used in digital information products all because the legalities are overwealming.
The author of this article, Joseph T. Sinclair, is the author of twenty How To books published by national publishers.
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©2014 Joseph T. Sinclair. All rights reserved.