Open-source advocates are not particularly worried about this scenario; they see piracy as a challenge that can be addressed through legal action and educational campaigns. But type designers see a world of raw fonts as a nightmare that could do to them what file sharing did to the music industry. “You’re throwing up a desktop font on a Web server, and there’s no inherent protection for the font there,” Thomas Phinney, formerly of Adobe’s type group, said at TypeCon. “Unsurprisingly, this is freaking scary to type foundries.” They could dig in their heels and write licenses that forbid using their fonts on the Web, but the price of sitting out the Web-font revolution would probably be too high to accept.
With a bit more patience, though, a third option could emerge–one that type designers see as ideal. Faced with the limitations of EOT and the risks of raw font linking, type designers and software engineers have been compiling a wish list for a brand-new, built-from-scratch font format. This system would offer better file compression to accommodate low-memory environments like mobile phones, and it would have a flexible metadata structure to embed information about permissions, but without turning browsers into enforcers.
Such a format has actually been created: Web Open Font Format, or WOFF, the combined work of the type designers Tal Leming and Erik van Blokland and Mozilla’s Jonathan Kew. A petition supporting WOFF began circulating in July, and several dozen type foundries, including important ones such as Carter & Cone and Hoefler & Frere-Jones, have signed. Mozilla and others are already testing code for WOFF (and also a less ambitious but backward-compatible format called EOT Lite). This option seems like the best hope for type designers, but since it might take time for all the browsers to implement it and for users to upgrade, it depends on the Web community’s patience.
Finding a solution that balances protection and freedom could redeem the missteps of a generation ago, when U.S. copyright law declined to cover typeface designs. The argument at the time was that protecting them would stifle innovation by concentrating the most popular designs in the hands of a few major foundries. But in effect, this decision permitted rampant plagiarism and thus removed the incentive to invest in type development. “We lost several decades in which corporate research could have contributed to our understanding of typographic legibility, aesthetics, and ergonomics,” says Charles Bigelow, a distinguished type historian at Rochester Institute of Technology and one of the designers of the Mac OS X system font, Lucida Grande. Now copyright protection has been extended to fonts as software, and type design has made significant advances–for example, the text-rendering technology ClearType, a result of Microsoft’s support for research into legibility. Bringing more fonts to the Web could lead to further progress. One prominent champion of Web fonts, Håkon Wium Lie, described the significance to me this way: “Archeologists of the future will classify Web pages into pre-font and post-font eras.”
Joshua J. Friedman, a former editor at the Atlantic and Boston Review, is a writer based in New York City.