Copping an Attitude
(Reprinted from Emigre magazine
issue 38, with permission from Emigre.)
You can't open a design magazine these days without stumbling across
an article or letter quarreling over who owns which typeface. The
discussion about Erik Spiekermann's "Meta" in Eye magazine and the ruse
over a customized version of Martin Majoor's "Scala" in the recent AIGA
Journal are but two recent examples. It comes as no surprise. The making
and selling of typefaces are perhaps experiencing one of the most
exhilarating times in their history, much of it the result of the
democratizing effect the Macintosh computer has had on this 500 year old
tradition. Not only does the Macintosh enable anyone willing to invest the
time to design and manufacture typefaces, it has also turned every computer
user into a potential purchaser of fonts, making typefaces a rather
valuable economic commodity.
Type was never before sold directly to end users. It was sold to
typesetting businesses who specialized in setting type according to the
specifications of graphic design professionals. Actually, the mainstay for
companies that manufactured type was the typesetting equipment. Often the
typefaces were part of the purchase of the equipment. World-wide, only a
handful of large type foundries existed, which licensed or commissioned
fonts from a small group of renowned type designers.
This all changed in 1984, when the Macintosh computer was introduced. Even
though it took a few years to catch on, when people realized the financial
and creative potential of typefaces made possible by the personal computer,
a burgeoning of upstart type foundries and distributors occurred. For the
first time in history, the established foundries found their market share
yielding to a new breed of font foundries: those involved in high
Over the next ten years, besides many font "volume discounters," a growing
number of smaller "alternative" foundries were started. While the latter
were initially seen as insignificant, recently they actually seem to be
breathing new life back into the older foundries, as both Monotype and Agfa
have become official licensors of foundries such as [T-26], one of the
numerous upstart foundries known for its many experimental student
Within the past ten years literally thousands of new typeface designs have
been added to what was already a sizable number, and the demand for fonts
has never been greater. While it is undeniable that this explosion has
given a great boost to the development of type (at least it has brought
wide attention to what used to be a completely obscure craft practiced by
only a few, mostly male, craftspeople), it hasn't been all positive. Due to
the increasing demand for typefaces that it generated, it has also brought
about its share of opportunism, questionable practices and rampant piracy.
One can argue, of course, that this, too, is simply an integral, perhaps
even necessary, part of the total equation that has helped demystify and
popularize the art of producing and marketing typefaces.
While we can expect few positive effects to come from the large font
discounters, and since the more established professional foundries are
somewhat hindered by commercial and practical considerations, the smaller
"alternative" foundries have been in a position to undertake more rigorous
experimentation and research. The promotional material that accompany the
new releases often emphasizes that experimentation is, in fact, the driving
force behind the work. Run by designers instead of managerial or business
types, they are less restricted by compromise, deadlines and other
commercial interests, and are often in close contact with art schools,
where research and experimentation are inherent.
When looking at the offerings of current alternative foundries, however,
apart from the hundreds of novelty fonts, it is disappointing to find that
little in-depth research has been conducted. While most alternative
foundries advertise experimentation as their principal concern, if any did
take place, seldom have we been presented with either the process or the
objective of any serious experimentation. An experiment, after all, is a
test whereby the test is often the most interesting aspect of the project.
Herbert Bayer's "Universal" typeface, for instance, was the result of
various investigations into geometrically drawn letter forms. Although the
final font is fraught with contradiction, it is the experiment, the
process, that makes it a valuable commodity.
In addition, and this is the point of my essay, although many of today's
so-called experimental fonts are obvious derivations, rarely is the
original typeface credited. In their rush to establish their own
identities, foundries often find it expeditious to plunder historical faces
without admitting what they've done.
Presenting us with only a result and not its process creates two problems.
First, it is difficult to consider the motivation behind these new
creations to be anything other than personal and financial gain, rendering
the adjective "alternative" somewhat presumptuous. And second, in case of
the derivative fonts, it renders the distinction between drawing
inspiration from the original font and stealing it less clear.
That is what this article and the accompanying article by John Downer
addresses. It revisits the notion of how we may learn from and build upon
existing models by way of homage without relinquishing personal expression,
experimentation or other gains.
There are, after all, ways to copy, borrow, sample and be inspired without
"ripping off" the work of others. This is, in fact, the way type design has
traditionally evolved. Much of the progress in type design has been the
result of adapting existing typefaces from one technology to another or of
satisfying particular demands regarding legibility or economy of usage of
a typeface. Jan Tschichold's typeface "Sabon," for instance, was based on
Garamond printing types and was commissioned by a group of German master
printers in 1960. The requirements were that it "should be suitable for
production in identical form for both mechanical and hand composition" and
"suitable for all printing purposes."
In addition, for reasons of economy,
they asked for it to be 5% narrower than the original Garamond model. The
work on such adaptations usually has included extensive research into both
ownership and history of a font. If necessary, fonts were licensed from one
foundry to another. The changes added to an existing font in this process
were usually the outcome of a combination of the restrictions presented by
new typesetting inventions and the idiosyncrasies or esthetic preferences
of the designer or foundry. In any case, most successful adaptations have
shown a great deal of respect for, and mention of, the original model.
Actually, it is the very research into the source material that makes the
new versions so well considered and valuable. Recent examples of this age
old method of "borrowing" are ITC's version of "Bodoni" designed by Sumner
Stone (with Jim Parkinson, Holly Goldsmith and Janice Prescott Fishman), as
well as Robert Slimbach's "Jenson" and Carol Twombly's "Trajan," which were
both released by Adobe, to name but a few.
We can continue this tradition today (unless, of course, you plan to make
some kind of sociopolitical statement about intellectual property, but one
needs to make this clear at the outset instead of using it as an excuse
when things go awry). When using existing fonts as a starting point, we can
create electronic drawings from scratch by scanning and tracing printouts,
for instance, or by licensing digital source material, as practiced and
enforced in the world of music. Or we can even create drawings by hand and
then scan them into a computer, a method that seems to be rapidly
disappearing along with the common decency of crediting source material.
Unauthorized copying of typefaces is not a recent phenomenon. It is as old
a tradition as is type design itself. In the book Printing Types,
published in 1922, author D. B. Updike describes the Bristol-based Fry type
foundry as "able but bare-faced copyists," who openly announced in the
advertisement for their specimen of 1785 that they had cut types "which
will mix with and be totally unknown from the most approved Founts made by
the late ingenious artist, William Caslon." The Caslon family was none too
flattered and published a poignant "Address to the Public" denouncing the
claim made by Fry and which was prefixed to the Caslon specimen of 1785.
Of course, the significant difference between copying then and copying now
is the ease with which one can do so today. The Fry foundry, according to
Updike, "spent some years" in making an imitation of Caslon's type. In
today's digital environment it has become virtually effortless. The copying
of digital drawings is a quick and easy process that requires little else
but the abilities to cut and paste. This would be of little concern if it
weren't for the fact that such creations are often put on the market at a
fraction of the cost of the copied versions, allowing the copyists to
easily outspend the originators in areas of promoting and distributing
Besides font "piracy," as it is often referred to, digital "sampling" is
another favorite but problematic means of creating typefaces. While
sampling has generated some remarkable designs, the results often stretch
the meaning of the word "original." A sampled font, after all, is a hybrid
made up of distinctive parts copied directly from existing digital fonts.
While digital sampling affords those not skilled in the traditional methods
of creating typefaces the means to do so, these productions often find
their way into the commercial font market as foundries struggle to outdo
each other by releasing ever greater numbers of fonts. Seldom are original
sources mentioned, and because so many novice designers and other "naive"
outsiders are involved, issues of copyright infringement are hardly
considered. Just to be sure, though, foundries usually enter clauses into
their contracts that place the responsibility for infringement on
intellectual property squarely in the lap of the designer.
Obviously, there exists a great deal of confusion and disagreement
regarding issues such as sampling and copying typefaces. What's the
difference, for instance, between taking a piece of tracing paper and
tracing a printout of an old specimen book and slightly changing it (as was
done when Tschichold created Sabon), and copying the digital data of an
existing digital font and slightly altering the coordinates? The
difference, of course, is the amount of work involved in making drawings
from scratch, be they digital or analog. In addition, and perhaps more
important, when fonts became digital, they became protected under software
copyright laws, making it illegal to copy and resell the digital code.
Regardless of how much you alter it afterwards, it is simply against the
law to do so. But it's not impossible to do.
One way to borrow legally is to first secure permission. Of course, this
requires a fair amount of research and patience, and can possibly result in
the responsibility of paying licensing fees to the original source
designer. More importantly, it acknowledges the issue of intellectual
property, a highly controversial notion these days, particularly among
those who struggle to come up with ideas of their own. Besides commenting
on how uncool it is to be uptight about issues of intellectual property,
typeface samplers often point to the world of music as an example of how
sampling can generate exciting, previously impossible new creations. Any
restriction upon usage, they claim, would restrict progress. They usually
fail to mention (or are unaware of) one important fact. Within the world of
music, it has been well established that if you want to sample something,
regardless of length, number of bars, or whatever, you have to get
Years ago, after much uncertainty over the issue of sampling, a
case went to court and a precedent was set when a judge ruled simply: "Thou
Shalt Not Steal." Most of the music world now abides by this ruling. There
are even companies that specialize in "clearing samples" (the method by
which permission for usage of borrowed bits of music is legally secured)
Sampling, therefore, is entirely legal; you just have to get permission. By
clearing the samples, the person being sampled at least has the opportunity
to say "no," or earn a licensing fee for the usage of his or her work. If a
sample is denied, the musician goes back to the drawing table.
A few years back Brian Schorn, then a design student at Cranbrook, showed
us a typeface that he designed called "Admorph." The typeface was based on
drawings of Trajan as found in the book The Alphabet by Frederic Goudy. We
were attracted to the concept of the font and became interested in
releasing it. However, the digital version of the font was created using
proprietary digital drawings of Adobe Trajan digitized by Carol Twombly. To
digitally render a font based on Trajan from scratch requires great
expertise and craftsmanship.
As a shortcut, to put together what was
essentially a conceptual font for private use in his thesis project, Brian
had used Adobe's font. To release Admorph commercially, we figured it would
be of considerable help to use Adobe's digital version of Trajan. Not only
would this speed up the process of manufacturing the font, it would also
give us access to some superior digital drawings that would require a great
deal of work on our side if we used a method of scanning and tracing the
drawings from the book.
Neither Brian nor we were up to that challenge. So
we wrote Adobe a letter asking to license the digital drawings of Trajan
for this project. Adobe considered the request but denied it. The reason
Adobe denied our request was unimportant. What is important is that as the
creator of digital data a designer should be given the opportunity to
decline or grant permission. Although we were disappointed, we respected
Adobe's decision, and to this date Admorph has not been released.
How much do you have to change a design in order to call it your own?
Obviously, there is no clear answer. Ethics, the rules or standards of
conduct governing the members of a profession, is all we have to guide us.
Milton Glaser, appropriator extraordinaire, and probably one of the most
ripped off designers alive today, once said something to the effect that he
wouldn't copy anybody's work unless the originator was dead. In case of
doubt, that's not bad advice. Today, thanks to the same computer that has
given everybody the ability to create and manufacture fonts, knockoffs or
slight deviations can be created, marketed and distributed within a matter
of months from the time an original is released. This makes it increasingly
difficult for the originator to have a chance to recoup the cost of
developing and making available original fonts.
I'm certain that it is the love of font design, and not just profitability,
that ultimately inspires people to explore new ideas. This deserves our
support. As producers of cultural artifacts, graphic designers have a
distinct understanding of the issues of copying and intellectual property,
and as avid users of type, we're in a unique position to support original
ideas born from honest investigation. Remember, if an offer of 1,000 fonts
for $99 sounds too good to be true, it probably is. . . .
(Having the ability to copy, change and customize a typeface
is one of the great benefits available to today's graphic designer. At
Emigre, we have always encouraged the customizing of our fonts and have
enjoyed seeing the curious alterationssometimes so surprisingly
effective we wish we had thought of them ourselves. Actually, after the
release of one of Zuzana Licko's first fonts, Modula, customized versions
kept showing up in printed works to the extent that Licko decided in 1995
to release a version that acknowledged and incorporated some of the
recurring suggestions. As long as a designer acquires a legal copy of a
font, he or she can use it freely, including changing the font to satisfy
certain idiosyncratic, stylistic or practical desires. However, when this
opportunity to alter existing fonts becomes a shortcut to cash in and
acquire recognition by reselling slightly altered fonts as originals, one
has to start wondering where to draw the line between inspiration and rip
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