Why computer fonts are so valuable

Blood, sweat and code

Letters Recently I posted an article lamenting MS' sudden withdrawal of its previously free TrueType fonts for the Web, and complaining that this leaves *nix users in a lurch for truly handsome fonts to use in X.

Shortly thereafter Reg reader Mick Dimmick sent me an excellent e-mail memo describing just how difficult and time-consuming it is to create a superior font, and perhaps offering justification for the Beast's decision. And if not, it certainly shows what open-source coders are now faced with. ®



Bear in mind that by copying the fonts from your Windows folder you will, as usual, be breaking the terms of the license. Producing a font is a huge amount of work -- and there are (or can be) copyrights involved at two levels.

In the US, there is no copyright in the actual outlines of the letters -- this is a deliberate exception to copyright law in the United States, intended to promote free press, I believe. However, in the UK and Europe, the actual design of the characters (the typeface) has copyright.

In all countries, the digital program that reproduces the typeface is considered copyright material. This means that in the US you can produce a new font file containing another person's character designs, and still claim copyright in that file.

Designing a typeface is extremely hard work. It can take days or months to draw out (sometimes by hand, although a number of professional typographers now draw their outlines directly into Macromedia Fontographer, the most popular program for producing fonts) all the outlines, producing a consistent whole.

Digitisations of handwriting typically take less time. Then it's common to refine the curves and try to minimise the number of points used in each glyph (a typographer's term for a particular character shape; more than one glyph may be mapped to each code point). Minimising the number of points tends to reduce the size of the font file and increase the rendering speed.

The number of glyphs needed is often more than people expect, too. A basic ISO-8859-1 character set (for US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Western Europe) contains around 220 glyphs. About another 100 or so are required for Central Europe, more are required for the Baltic countries, Cyrillic for Russia, Serbia and other Slavic countries and a number more for Greek.

Admittedly a lot of those are basic Roman characters with diacritics (accents) but the exact positioning of the diacritic can be tricky -- and it can sometimes modify the basic character shape. Chinese, Japanese and Korean become a whole new ballgame -- there are thousands of glyphs. Times New Roman does not include Far East, Hebrew, Arabic, or South Asian glyphs.

The very best fonts incorporate different shapes of characters in the same font (many glyphs per code point). Macintosh and Windows offer facilities for developers to discover the additional glyphs available (things like baseline numerals, swash capitals, proper small capitals, additional fractions) and to include them in the output. Highly professional desktop publishing tools often make these available.

Once it's all laid out consistently, the next stage is to hint. Good hinting is mainly why the Microsoft fonts are so desirable. The purpose of hinting is to deliberately distort the design of the characters at given resolutions (given as 'pixels per em', where the 'em' is generally the width of the 'M' character -- it's the basic design width of the typeface) so that they produce readable and, ideally, pleasing bitmaps. Producing a good TrueType hinting program is also very difficult.

Apparently, when designing the Tahoma font for Windows CE devices, Matthew Carter (the designer) drew out the bitmaps for particular sizes of the font, and Microsoft hinted the font so that those bitmaps were achieved.

Unsurprisingly, the best tools are also not cheap - Fontographer costs around $350 (obviously plus any sales tax). Microsoft do provide a tool for assisting with hint programs for free.

Most of the fonts which come with Windows and Macintosh, and those in Microsoft's web fonts pack, are/were licensed from other type foundries. Times New Roman is licensed from Monotype, who originally completed the design for the Times in 1932. Arial is also a Monotype license (although it appears to be a modification of one of Monotype's other designs to make it more interchangeable with Helvetica). Tahoma, Verdana, Trebuchet and Comic Sans were all commissioned by Microsoft for various purposes. In each case, they represent a large tranche of work, which, unsurprisingly, the designers want to get paid for - because they're professional designers. And the licenses from the foundries are very explicit - for sale and use with a copy of a Windows operating system only. I suspect that the font pack was withdrawn because Microsoft couldn't guarantee -- and weren't guaranteeing -- that the fonts were only being downloaded and used by licensed users.

I'm currently typing this in Bigelow & Holmes' Lucida Console, a derivative of their Lucida Sans Typewriter specifically designed to look good on computer consoles.

Now, admittedly, there are some designers/foundries which make their fonts available truly free -- not shareware, and not licensed only to particular operating systems. But they're few and far between -- and they tend not to deal in body fonts, but only in stylistic and headline fonts. A body font needs to be readable above almost all other criteria, while a display font (headline font) can be (almost) as outlandish as the designer likes. But generally, fonts cost -- I'm looking at MyFonts.com, and Times New Roman costs $21 per face -- that is, the Roman (upright) face costs $21, the italic a further $21, etc -- for PostScript fonts containing only English and Western European glyphs.

It's interesting that a $139 license of Windows XP Home Edition contains fonts that would probably cost several hundred pounds if purchased separately, isn't it?

My personal opinion is that professional typographers are unlikely to produce high quality fonts without financial reward -- and the most popular faces are of course owned by professional type foundries.

-- Mike Dimmick

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