Why Must Fonts Be Free?

This is certainly a complex issue, and I don’t think I have a really good grasp on it yet. But these are my current thoughts:

Fonts must be free (as in freedom, not price.)


All typefaces have a functional purpose, and all typefaces have an artistic purpose too. For any given pair of fonts, these qualities can be compared. But there is no clear distinction between display and text typefaces.

I would say a typeface that is unsuitable for setting paragraphs of text in, and is used for setting words or phrases such as titles, has less of a functional purpose as a typeface, than one designed for reading. But typefaces designed for reading can be very beautiful at large sizes, and if the paragraph is printed large enough (such as in signage or a billboard) then a typeface designed for display can be used to set text for reading.

In general, we need more free replacements for all kinds of generally useful technical information, and since typefaces are useful, they fall wholly into this category.

There are functions and uses that users want to put a thing to that it was not originally designed for; parts might be incorrect/broken, or be missing and users might like to have them added. Who decides what is fixed or added? The users? Or the initial developers?

The previous paragraph applies equally to any functional information: software, recipes, manuals, encyclopedias, dictionaries, telephone directories, textbooks, and typefaces.

The central question is: Should the developers of a functional work have control/power over the users of that work?

Another aspect is that a typeface is expressed today as font software.

When talking about typefaces, we are talking as if the font software that represents them are still Type1, just a collection of outlines. In that case, I agree with you and Stallman that some Type1 fonts are socially artistic works and restricting others’ freedom is okay. But as font software becomes more programmatic, freedom becomes an issue even for such artistic fonts.

Imagine finding a bug in Ed Interlocking that House Industries isn’t interested in fixing! It would be as awful as finding a bug in FontLab that Pyrus aren’t interested in fixing, or in InDesign with Adobe.

In terms of the main font software formats, Type1 is less programmatic than TrueType (because of hinting) which is less programmatic than OpenType (because of feature tables) which is less programmatic than AAT (because of state automata). AAT is totally obsolete now, though. Graphite format fonts are perhaps also part of this space, but I’m not familiar enough with them to comment. And of course Metafont sits in its own category, because it is an algebraic programming language for describing glyphs.

As font software formats have been developed, they have becomes more and more like program software, and freedom becomes more and more of an issue - no matter what kind of typeface is expressed by the font software.

Perhaps when “display” typefaces have a very decorative and artistic purpose, and use the simple outline-storage parts of a font format, a license that restricts everything but non-commercial redistribution is fine. Friendship and community are respected, at least. Something like one of the Creative Commons NonCommercial licenses, even the NoDerivs one, would be appropriate here. But such a font would go into the non-free areas of package management systems used by GNU/Linux distributors.

Sometimes people who don’t value the visual qualities of different typefaces say things like “Why do we need more free fonts? Let us just use Deja Vu.”

For me, it can be summed up simply as that since people use proprietary font software, we need more free font software.

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The Why Must Fonts Be Free? by David Crossland, except the quotations and unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.


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