Autumn 1994

Font pirates and price-cutters

Software: Type’s troubles

‘The typeface market is entering its most challenging phase … there will be blood on the carpet by Christmas.’ Stuart Jensen of FontWorks / FontShop is not alone in holding this view of the font industry, which seems unlikely to survive in its present form. The problems typeface manufacturers face have two main causes. First, fonts have been subject to unprecedented levels of illegal copying over the last few years – ask anyone to provide proof of purchase of all the fonts on their computers and it is unlikely to be forthcoming. Second, there has recently been a dramatic drop in the price of fonts at street level, further limiting manufacturers’ revenue.

Font piracy has always occurred, but has become easier and easier with the introduction of successive waves of new technology. Metal punches required great skill to manufacture, so piracy in the early days of printing was almost entirely limited to illegally borrowing or ‘mumping’ type and matrices. With the advent of computer setting and fonts stored in digital form on magnetic media such as tape or disk which can be duplicated with relative ease, manufacturers took measures to protect typefaces by generating them for specific machines, so that a typeface licensed for one machine would not function if installed on another. Until recently, therefore, the most common form of piracy involved the copying of successful designs by competing font producers wishing to escape royalty payments or unable to obtain licences (such ‘derivative designs’ are not strictly illegal thanks to weak copyright laws). You need only scan the manufacturers’ catalogues for the tell-tale words ‘The So-and-so version of…’ to see evidence of this practice.

The current level of font piracy can be attributed to the desktop publishing revolution initiated by the introduction of the Apple Macintosh. As fonts for the Macintosh possess no form of applied or intrinsic copy protection, they can be illegally copied from disk to disk with consummate ease, creating duplicates that are identical to the originals. In the early days of the Macintosh, Adobe, the developer of the PostScript Type 1 font format which has become the Macintosh standard, attempted to limit the use of a font to a specific machine, but as with copy protection in general, this proved unpopular in the marketplace and was abandoned. Some forms of protection continued for a while, as with the Berthold fonts with jagged outlines which were suitable for proofing on a 300 dpi laser printer but required the services of a Berthold image-setting bureau with high quality printer fonts to produce artwork. The output resolution of Bitstream’s less expensive range of Designer fonts was also limited to 300 dpi, irrespective of the printer.

Today, font piracy has extended beyond mere duplication. With the aid of font creation and manipulation programs such as FontStudio and Fontographer, self-styled designers can open up fonts, modify the outlines slightly and pass them off as their own work. More recently, fonts are being embedded into electronic documents so that work created on one platform, such as a Macintosh, is readable on another, for instance a PC. Though fonts incorporated into documents are inaccessible to all but the most experienced hacker, the practice could have far-reaching consequences.

Feelings among font designers and producers are running high. Sue Thexton, general manager of Adobe Systems, Europe, is clear about where her company stands: ‘Let’s get this straight … Font piracy is theft. Font designs are works of art by skilled designers who spend a great deal of time developing their designs. They are not charities, they should be properly recompensed for that work. Just as any ad agency or design studio would be incensed if their creative work was used by others, so it is with type. We pay a royalty fee for every type design in the Adobe PostScript Type Library – whether it’s to ITC, Linotype, or whoever.’

Font producers and retailers have adopted a stick-and-carrot approach to combating font piracy. FAST (Federation Against Software Theft) carried out successful and highly publicised raids on companies suspected of piracy and aimed to raise awareness of the legal position wit regard to copying fonts. The FAST initiative was supported by promotional deals whereby collections and even entire libraries of fonts could be bought at special discounts.

But just when the industry thought the wind was blowing its way, with users flocking to legitimise their collections, street prices began to plummet. The first signs came with the appearance of URW’s CD-ROMs containing 500 fonts in six styles for £750. Bitstream then offered its entire library of 3000 fonts for between £799 and £899. Soon afterwards Atomic Type, a new retailing company, began to advertise single Adobe, Bitstream and Monotype fonts on floppy disk for £29 per face. Then in July 1994 Bitstream made its fonts available on floppy disk at £12.50 each.

Of course, low prices are good for users, and would be good for the industry in general were it not for the fact that high quality fonts are time consuming and expensive to produce. The most likely scenario in the near future is that companies such as Adobe, Linotype and Letraset, with their broad portfolio of products will continue to trade but with reduced type-production capabilities. But it is difficult to see how companies with a relatively narrow range of products will be able to retain their independence and continue to create new faces. The industry may well divide into three sectors: major companies such as Adobe which are strong enough to withstand the market conditions and will continue to produce and market new fonts; companies with greatly reduced production facilities but with libraries of fonts to exploit; and small font producers with minimal overheads and strong links to marketing outlets such as FontWorks / FontShop.

Is there any way of averting this? The idea of introducing copy protection of fonts is reconsidered from time to time but dismissed as impractical. First, there is no way of preventing the millions of fonts already purchased from being illegally copied, and then unless copy protection is applied by all companies simultaneously, those that apply protection first will be assured of rapid extinction. Persuading users accustomed to unprotected PostScript Type 1 fonts to accept copy-protected fonts is as difficult as squeezing toothpaste back into its tube. Even the forthcoming QuickDraw GX fonts with their capacity to store vast numbers of characters and in-built intelligence are unlikely to change anything since they will almost certainly be even more time consuming and expensive to produce than more traditional fonts. It would seem that little can be done to avoid the choppy waters ahead.

From the consumer’s point of view, forthcoming changes in the industry will probably mean fewer new fonts issued by the major companies and few retail outlets. With prices as low as £12.50 a font, the margins are unlikely to enable those producers who survive to offer designers much in the way of technical support. It seems likely that once the current round of rationalisation has played itself out, prices will rise again. This may well benefit everyone.

András Benedek, Partner, Font Factory, Old Hatfield, England

First published in Eye no. 14 vol. 4 1994

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions and single issues.