DRM or Free’n’Ugly: why Hakon Lie is wrong about web fonts

As I keep forgetting to prove by posting some old work, I was once an ardent amateur typographer before the web rendered that pastime, as well as most desktop publishing, all but obsolete. As someone who used to code my favorite font family into my stylesheets on the off chance that someone would have Minion installed on their machine, I should be right in the target market for Opera CTO Hakon Lie’s write-up on improving web typography.

And yet, I find myself with some misgivings. Not because there aren’t problems with web typography. To cite one example, several sites that I visit from my home browser used to appear strange to the point of being unreadable because Safari read the type family and found the nearest match—but as you can see, Myriad Wild is no substitute for Adobe’s elegant Myriad sans serif, and when the browser identifies the music-font variant of Minion as the right text in which to set a page of text it’s time to give up.

But the biggest problem with fonts online for me is the same as the biggest problem offline: quality and readability. And for this cause I think Hakon’s suggestion that free fonts should be accessible by browsers to render web pages is not the best idea. The best example I can think of is the one Hakon used: Goodfish. I may be a font snob, but I can’t help but think a web page set in this font would drive me to turn off font downloading—or stop visiting the page. It’s not a bad font, it’s just not a good font for setting text. In fact, it was the general unavailability of good fonts for reading text on screen that drove Microsoft to commission Verdana, Georgia and the other fonts in their Web type set in the first place. Display faces are a dime a dozen, and I happily use freely available ones where necessary—but good fonts for setting text are worth their weight in gold, and the odds of them being released for free use without some sort of DRM are minimal. (That I can name only two exceptions, the highly useful Gentium and Bitstream’s Vera, proves the rule.)

And speaking of DRM and free, there are two unattractive possibilities that would come from the institution of standards for downloading Web fonts. First, there is a long history of ripping off and undercompensating font designers (think of all those collections of 1001 free fonts that consist entirely of cheap knock offs of gold standard fonts that cost money) that can only get worse if the pressure to provide free fonts for Web use grows. I think that a flood of even more cheap knock-off fonts falls in the category of really bad unintended consequences. At the same time, the last thing I want to see is an even more restrictive set of DRM schemes around font technologies. And think of the challenges of enforcing “web only” font licenses through DRM when more and more of the user’s desktop applications are migrating to the Web.

I also think the point that is made on Big Patterns about the difference between free-as-in-beer and free-as-in-speech fonts is well made. But at the end of the day what I want is good fonts that can be used online without resorting to PDF, Flash, or various CSS image replacement techniques—and without paying an ASCAP-style yearly license for the right to do so. I don’t see this happening under Hakon’s suggestion without some extremely creative thinking on the part of the font foundries and software engineers.