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@font-face: The Fonts are coming, the Fonts are coming!

The times they are a changing - font's are coming to the Web and there's nothing that anyone can do to stop it. Unfortunately the font industry has so far been hesitant to embrace a new potential revenue source and change along with the technology.

With some form of @font-face now supported in the latest version of every major browser (Firefox, Opera, Chrome _sort of_, Safari and IE8 - yes, you'd need two versions of each font file in EOT & TTF - to support all browsers but it's a step in the right direction) there is finally a chance for Web Developers to break out of the painfully restricting confines of the 10 web safe fonts. The simplicity of the CSS needed for @font-face as well as how easily it handles backwards compatibility makes it a pretty sure hit in the near future. We're not 100% there yet, but it looks like it's going to be months not years.

As an example, to use a free font from the people at fonts.info in the same directory as your CSS:
All you need to do is (ignoring the the  alternative custom CSS file necessary for IE):

<style type="text/css">
@font-face {    font-family: GraublauWeb;    src: url(GraublauWeb.otf); }
p {  font-family:GraublauWeb, Verdana, sans-serif; }
</style>

And fallback to the legacy 10 is right there in the code (I ignored the bold font for brevity's sake).

Except for the fact that it's still darn hard to find quality fonts to embed.  One of the problems is that many designers seem to be equating web fonts = free fonts, probably because many web developers are pushing for plentiful free fonts and the fact that web-specific licensing isn't really set-up yet. Since free is a tough to make a living off (although who knows we could end up with "Frutiger, sponsored by Dole!"),  very few people seem to be willing to commercially license fonts that can be embedded on the web unless there's some sort of digital restrictions (even if it's a weak one). Judging from some of the animated discussions about free fonts at typophile - font designers aren't happy about free and it seems like the only solution being presented is to replicate the RIAA and MPAA's winning strategies in the area of digital rights warfare: first resist any change for as long as you can, and then try to railroad some poorly thought out DRM scheme into the technology that ends up hurting paying users much more than the pirates.

Unfortunately the tribulations of the music and movie industry have shown us one thing:

People who don't want to pay for stuff WON'T pay for it no matter what. People who do want to pay for stuff WILL pay for it if it's easier than not paying for it.

The truth of the matter is the people who pirate Adobe Font Folio instead of paying for it aren't going to pay the 2.5k for it regardless of how many protections you put around the digital files, because when it comes down to it - you need to be able to use the files somehow, and if you can use them that means you can get at the data and there's someone out there who can crack that data out of it's DRM shell.

So, if we accept that there are two types of people out there - pirates and customers - the question becomes how to make life more difficult for pirates and easier for customers?

Font designers are scared that if their work is embedded it automatically becomes publicly available to pirates and thus "free" - but the truth of the matter is that it's already publicly available (once one person buys it they can upload it to a p2p network without DRM restrictions or watermarks) - so lets take an example of the creation of a simple licensing system that uses the public available part to it's advantage in enforcing payment on commercial fonts:

Imagine if you could buy a web font, but then you needed to include a  a comment before each @font-face declaration with a license number:

/* FONT FOUNDRY LICENSE: #5648961561565 */
@font-face { font-family: GraublauWeb; src: url(GraublauWeb.otf); }

The license number could be keyed to an account that is licensed to one or more domains - if that font and license number appears on a domain that's not in the account, have a system generate an automated email to the owner of the domain saying the font is licensed incorrectly. If there's no action on the font, send a DMCA notice to the domain's ISP requesting removal.

Since @font-face fonts need to be publicly available to download, it's easy to have a web crawler generate a unique id number (i.e. a hash) based on meta-data or a binary signature for every font that it finds on the web and compare that id to a list of hash's in it's database. If there's a match and no corresponding license number or a domain mismatch on the license number - send out that automated email to the WHOIS info on the web.

This would require a sea-change of how font licensing is done - not per user but for per-domain usage - but it would keep the industry making money and even allow for new revenue streams from embedded licensing.

As for the pirates, you won't be able to catch every one, but you'll be able to catch the most popular offenders (since most crawlers will generally crawl the most popular sites first) and since those are the people who most likely have a commercial interest in not getting sued for statutory damages you'll be able to recoup your expenses.

If a search company offered this service to font foundries, scouring the whole web isn't that easy after all, it would be pretty simple to create an economy of scale that would make it economically feasible - Google after all already indexes some binary files, so get them to add fonts to their index searchable by the aforementioned data hash (so people can't just change the file name) and the above technique could theoretically be executed as with a few hundred lines of a Google-API connected search script.

I don't know if something like this is going to happen soon - but is there any reason that fonts can't follow the lead of the stock image market? Yes there are images available for free or for $1.00 a pop ( Istockphoto.com ), but places like Getty are still the place to go if you want to get that 1-of-a-kind image and are willing to pay for it. Some fonts will be free, but there will still be a market for those unique fonts that people are willing to pay for.

Please, font people, there are companies like us that are very willing to pay for fonts we use on the web - learn from the lessons of the RIAA - after years of pushing DRM restrictions, almost everyone who sells music online now makes the files available in a DRM-free format -  yet Bono's still making money hand over first. That and I'm really getting friggin' tired of Arial.

Posted Thursday, Oct 08 2009 12:48 PM by Pascal

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