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The Sorry State of Native App Typography Licensing (gazit.me)
81 points by idan on Dec 19, 2012 | hide | past | web | favorite | 57 comments

Couldn't agree more! That's why the open font movement is so exciting... some of the fonts available are great:

* http://www.theleagueofmoveabletype.com/

* http://iginomarini.com/fell/the-revival-fonts/

* http://www.openfontlibrary.org/

Open fonts are where open source was a decade or so ago... but the trend is already clear.

There are a few decent open fonts now (and then a whole lot of novelty display faces, and a fair number of knockoffs), but it is unlikely that the "open font movement" is going to displace H+FJ or the like any time soon. As Andrew points out downthread, creating a complete set of hinted fonts for a face is tremendously expensive and time consuming, and for the people with the resources to devote time mastering the craft, there's a functioning market for the work.

There are a few decent open fonts now (and then a whole lot of novelty display faces, and a fair number of knockoffs), but it is unlikely that the "open font movement" is going to displace H+FJ or the like any time soon.

That's an unfortunate example. H&FJ do excellent work, but a lot of people simply can't use it (legally, at least) because of their archaic licensing. You can't use their fonts on the web with @font-face. You can't even embed them in PDFs you're going to distribute, without paying for some mysterious extension to the standard licence.

They displaced themselves from those markets, and given that there are now some free web fonts available that are very good by any standards, I suspect H&FJ will never establish themselves in that market in the way they could have. Perhaps from a commercial point of view it doesn't matter to them, if their focus is the high-end, money-no-object-for-our-brand customers that I suspect they rely on for the bulk of their revenues. If you count people like the President of the United States among your customers, I imagine that makes up for quite a few Joe Webmasters.

They are clearly crying themselves to sleep on their pillows stuffed with hundred dollar bills.

Maybe they are or maybe they aren't. It doesn't change the fact that they have kept themselves out of the low-mid range font market through their deliberate choices about pricing and licensing. The "open font movement" doesn't need to displace H&FJ, because H&FJ were never the incumbent.

This is a fake argument. Who's contesting that H+FJ has "kept themselves out of the low-mid range font market"? Of course they're doing that.

Then unless we're talking about some sort of high-end native apps that are going to want to license H&FJ fonts because the open, screen-optimised fonts already available are somehow inferior, what was your original point again?

That the open fonts people point to tend to be inferior to those of H+FJ or FF, and that H+FJ doesn't seem to care much that you can't use their fonts on your terms.

The thing is, for on-screen use, that simply isn't true. Good screen-optimised fonts, including the better free ones like Open Sans or Source Sans, will blow almost any standard font from almost any major foundry out of the water right now if the application is on-screen web or native apps.

The strengths of good screen fonts (i.e., hinting) are very different to the strengths of high-end pro font families from the big foundries (subtle details, comprehensive range of weights, big character sets, and so on).

The sad thing is that even those foundries who have made some attempt to port their popular fonts to a screen format, typically for use as web fonts, have produced very poor results more often than not. (Don't believe me? Go visit any trendy web design blog that uses Typekit, and then disable Typekit and read the same text in a dedicated screen font like Calibri or Verdana, and tell me which one really looks better.) I attribute that directly to the fact that they haven't invested the same effort in those screen fonts that they might invest in a "full" font, which in turn is presumably because they don't expect any extra quality to make much difference to how much money they make, which in turn is probably because they're segmenting the market into "rich" and "freeloaders" and mostly ignoring the middle ground who might make better screen fonts a profitable endeavour.

Until that changes, I'll take something like Open Sans or Source Sans over anything in the H&FJ collection for use in a web or native app, thanks -- not least because H&FJ still don't seem to have converted their fonts and made them available for web use at all. I sometimes wonder how their high-end clients who demand consistent high-end branding feel about that.

We disagree. But by all means, go ahead and keep using Open Sans. It's a competently executed font that will make you look like you care about as much about flashy typesetting as Google does. Which is my point.

Well, it is certainly a more competently executed font than anything from H&FJ, because they don't have any screen-optimised web fonts available yet.

And while I respect your right to disagree, I do not appreciate your implications about the quality of my typographical work. I know that the price I pay for posting under a pseudonym is being unable to defend myself by showing actual work I've produced, but to those who know who I am and the kind of work I produce professionally in real life, right now you're probably looking a bit like I would if I started lecturing you about how it's bad practice to store the raw version of passwords so you should XOR everything with a randomly selected byte for security.

Yes, they do; they just aren't generally available on open terms. Kottke's blog uses (used?) an H+FJ web font.

I don't even follow your second graf. "Your typographical work"? What would that be? If I'd seen it and commented on it, your comment would make more sense.

Yes, they do; they just aren't generally available on open terms.

Well then I come back to my original point: H&FJ is an unfortunate example to compare with open fonts, because they have already excluded themselves from the markets we are talking about in this HN discussion.

If I'd seen it and commented on it, your comment would make more sense.

Your previous statement "[Open Sans is] a competently executed font that will make you look like you care about as much about flashy typesetting as Google does" came across as a not very subtle insult, as if anyone using Open Sans can't typeset anything more interesting with it than a big white space with a couple of words and a text box in the middle. If that wasn't what you intended then I withdraw my comment.

Surely hinted fonts are an anachronism in the days of "retina" displays?

Desktop and webfont pricing [for fontspring] is identical, but appfonts are ten times the price!

I think the blogger made a mistake here: desktop licenses are per 5 users, web licenses are per 500k page views, but app licenses seem to be for any number. The app license even explicitly states

b. Licensee may embed the Font into an unlimited number of copies of the App.

(As a tangential aside, why the heck does HN still not have a syntax for blockquoting!?)

Another potential difference might be that most (not all) webfont licensing situations involve content that is controlled entirely by the licensee, but app licenses might frequently involve scenarios where the licensee's customers control the content. For instance, Instapaper has effectively obtained a license for typesetting pretty much everything on the Internet in FF Meta.

> I think the blogger made a mistake here: desktop licenses are per 5 users, web licenses are per 500k page views, but app licenses seem to be for any number.

Indeed. So the "mobile" license is equivalent to 50 desktop users or 5 million pageviews in price, but without the limits.

You're right, same for web licenses for which you pay per page view.

There's lots of great free-for-commercial-usage typefaces out there. If you don't already have Fontsquirrel[1] (who also has a fantastic @font-face generator[2]) bookmarked, you should fix that immediately. Google Web Fonts[3] is also another (obvious) resource.

[1] http://www.fontsquirrel.com/

[2] http://www.fontsquirrel.com/fontface/generator

[3] http://www.google.com/webfonts

Also, while I'm at it, I guess I could name some typefaces I've grown quite fond of: Alegreya, Aller, Cabin, Delicious, Fontin Sans, Lato, Open Sans, PT Sans, Puritan, Quattrocento Sans, Rosario, Source Sans Pro, Ubuntu. All great stuff!

It is hard to imagine something that is less of a "commodity" than a high-end designer font. Literally everyone in the world with a computer or smartphone has numerous highly serviceable fonts at their disposal; if you're looking to license a designer font, the sole rational reason you'd be doing it is to de-commoditize your typesetting.

I'd just like to point out that it costs upwards of $1 million USD to design and implement a serious Unicode font from scratch (full TT hinting, all styles/weights, multiple glyph sets). So keep that in mind when referring to licensing fees. The license cost compared to the cost of production is very, very small.

Focusing on the high cost of providing a complex product can be dangerous. The theory of disruptive innovation is that many products are overly complex and priced too high.

As Clayton Christensen put it, "[D]isruptive innovations ... offered less of what customers in established markets wanted and so could rarely be initially employed there. They offered a different package of attributes valued only in emerging markets remote from, and unimportant to, the mainstream." [1]

In this case, a serious Unicode font with full TT hinting, all styles/weights, multiple glyph sets is seriously over-serving the needs of the mobile app market. I am currently building a mobile app that uses beautiful typography, and open fonts are working wonderfully for me. I don't need any of the extra font features you mentioned; I don't even need bold and italics versions of my fonts for my apps.

This form of disruption is called "low-end disruption" and "targets customers who do not need the full performance valued by customers at the high end of the market." [2] Open fonts very much fit that description, and their growth trajectory suggests that they will serve that role well.

Over time, the high-end market players tend to get eaten alive by an innovative low-end disruptor who upgrade their offerings and price points. For examples, see Nucor in steel and Toyota in cars.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Disruptive_innovation#The_theor...

[2] Christensen, Clayton M. (2003). The Innovator's Solution : Creating and Sustaining Successful Growth

It is more like 20–50k in average, 100–200k for high end fonts from the biggest foundries. I single handedly made an Arabic typeface, 4 styles, ~5000 glyph each (that is perceived by many as a high quality font) over the course of 4 years as a side project most of time. Type design is hard, but making good fonts is no harder that writing good software, it is just a niché market with relatively few professionals.

Can you help me understand that cost?

I'm having trouble imagining 10 people getting paid $100k/year, working full-time for a year on a font. The Ubuntu font family is a serious font, it includes 13 fonts covering 1200 glyphes and 200-250 languages. It took about a year to develop. While 10 people might have worked on it in total, it would have been done in phases, not 10 people for a full year. Maybe Canonical did pay a million dollars... did they?

The Ubuntu font includes Latin, Greek, and Cyrillic glyphs. The website says Arabic and Hebrew are TBA. Then you have other glyphs such as Thai, not to mention CJK. You're assuming 10ppl/$100k, but the company also needs to make a profit. The font work is usually done in phases, obviously delivering base Latin first and other glyphs/weights are added later. I can't speak to how detailed the hinting is in the Ubuntu font, but that requires lots of tedious work if you need to be able to display/render the font at very small font sizes.

edit: Wikipedia also contains this regarding Dalton Maag, the foundry which created the Ubuntu font:

"In July 2012 the Rio 2016 Olympic Games released their brand font created by Dalton Maag. It was based on the letters and numbers within the logo already created by Brazilian design agency, Tátil.[11] The typeface took eight months to create and comprises 5448 characters. The design work was mainly done by Dalton Maag’s Brazilian office, which worked with the London team during the font engineering stage, and also with Brazilian consultant Gustavo Soares, who worked as the technical interface between Dalton Maag and the Rio 2016 team."

There's an example of a typeface built over 8 months using two teams in two countries.

Let me fix the title:

"The Sorry State of Typography Licensing"

It has always been, and will continue to be, a pain, because the foundries have the same mindset as recording labels, movie studios, etc.

Yes: that their work, which is simultaneously an incredibly time consuming craft and a luxury good that nobody can reasonably claim a native entitlement to, deserves to be remunerated at rates that the market sets.

That's a dubious argument.

For one thing, much of the market sets the rate for top quality fonts at $0, just as it did with music before legal download sites killed off the $20+ CD album with three good tracks and a dozen fillers.

On a personal note, I do value good quality typography in various professional and occasionally even personal work, and I do spend my own hard-earned money to buy the fonts I use legally. However, I have certainly paid less than I would have, because even as a typophile willing to open his wallet, now that I've got a few really good choices available, any further purchases are luxuries.

One of my companies recently bought some fonts for branding purposes. Initially we bought three from a family that we were fairly sure we wanted. Happy with the results of our initial design work, we went back a few weeks later to find the foundry had hiked up prices to nearly double their previous rate. Instead of completing the set for future-proofing purposes, we just walked away and made do with what we already had. And we didn't hire the web fonts at all, we just created some PNGs in Photoshop for key branding graphics, and use good, free web fonts for the rest.

If we could pay $20 for a real web font licence (not some renewable/pay per view/pay per server/other junk) or $100 for a whole family, then I imagine we'd be buying new stuff every time we ran a themed campaign on our site. At closer to $100 for a single font and $1,000+ for a serious family without even getting a web licence thrown in, it's just not worth it. It's the 21st century, and we have the Internet now. Maybe foundries that want to make a good return on all their hard work need to think less like the movie/music dinosaurs and more like Apple and Valve.

No, the "market" does not set the "rate" for "top quality fonts" at "$0". When people take commercial services without paying for them, that's not a market function. All the work that goes into trying to make people not honor contracts is deadweight loss.

As you know, the "thing you refer to as the market but isn't" also doesn't set the rate for top quality fonts at $0. By all means, pirate fonts for your meaningless project that nobody will ever see or give a shit about. But if that project ever goes anywhere, it's pretty hard to hide the fact that you stole FF Meta or H+FJ Vitesse or Chaparral. You'll just get sued, and you'll lose. Fonts are not like music. People steal music for private enjoyment and primarily get caught when they redistribute their stolen tracks. That's not what happens with fonts.

You'll just get sued, and you'll lose.

I think you are wildly overestimating the odds of being successfully sued for ripping off a font.

And black markets generally arise precisely when the official market isn't working effectively. You can deny reality or work with it, but for most of us changing it because we don't like it isn't an option.

No, you're underestimating the risk, because the risk of being sued is dwarfed by the risk of projects simply failing.

Risks like these --- along with not incorporating, mishandling your capital structure, working without contracts, &c --- are the most pernicious startups have to reason about, because they only sting in the unlikely case that you actually succeed. As a result, they're easy to discount. Unfortunately, when you do that, you end up counterfeiting your success, because it's only when you actually get your break that you realize you've made the mistake.

If you're knowingly wasting your life on projects that you don't expect to come to fruition, by all means, steal the fonts you use to promote them with. You have bigger problems than the font police.

People rip off fonts all the time, and many of them do it for major commercial projects.

As someone who does pay for fonts legally, and who makes his own living creating knowledge works, I find this intensely annoying.

But I've still never heard of a single project being undermined or seen anyone suddenly change their branding as a result of a lawsuit about font usage rights. For a start, if the font is being used to generate graphics or for anything in print rather than embedded electronically, you'd have a tough time proving any kind of infringement in jurisdictions where the design of a font isn't subject to protection.

Frankly, I don't believe that most small type foundries have the will, the time or the money to go after anything but large-scale, flagrant infringement anyway, any more than my company would realistically go after a client who didn't pay a small invoice. Whatever protection the law theoretically affords, in practice the overhead of exercising your rights are greater than the benefit you stand to gain by doing so. Pragmatically, your best bet is not to work with people who are likely to rip you off, which you can do by working with nicer people or by reducing the incentive for less nice people to screw you over.

Point me to a project you think (a) lots of people would have paid attention to and (b) is using typefaces that they haven't bothered licensing.

Are you serious? Half the design agencies in the universe seem to have a massive stock of fonts that they once bought for one project (if that) and never deleted, copied onto their servers where any of their designers can use them for any new project, with little if any control or auditing going on.

You claim that there is a bogeyman out there who will come and sue infringers, but it seems to me that this is the rare exception rather than the rule. Ironically, the last case I heard about was HADOPI, the French anti-piracy watchdog, which got caught with its pants down almost immediately over the font it was using for its logo.

You seem to be living in this HN dream world where all projects are high-value and all clients are high payers. If you want to argue that font licensing works effectively in that market, sure, maybe it does. But most of the design world isn't like that, and the current copyright/licensing regime for fonts is doing precious little to promote their use in the rest of the industry.

That is exactly what I'm arguing: that font licensing works effectively for the high-value projects the foundries target. And if you don't think what you're building has the potential to be high-value, why are you working on it?

You don't seem to get it: it is a perfectly sane business decision to choose your client base. Most of the foundries haven't chosen "random web apps". They're probably smart to make that decision, given the fact that most of the people who make "random web apps" don't really value typography. How I know that is, they bitch loudly over pricing that is a tiny fraction of what the foundries real customers routinely pay.

That is exactly what I'm arguing: that font licensing works effectively for the high-value projects the foundries target.

Well, OK, I'm not disputing that. But this discussion isn't about those high-value projects, it's about using fonts in native apps.

And if you don't think what you're building has the potential to be high-value, why are you working on it?

Because not every project in the world has to be Google or Facebook. I think your definition of high-value is probably a lot higher than what many people would consider a successful project, assuming the project is even being done for profit in the first place.

You don't seem to get it: it is a perfectly sane business decision to choose your client base.

I get that just fine. It's just that you seem to be the only person in this entire discussion who is talking almost exclusively about high-end projects, while the rest of us seem to be generally agreeing that the current state of type licensing is not helpful for anywhere below high-end.

You're beating a straw man. I'm not saying you have to be shooting to be the next Google.

But your entire argument seems to be that font licensing is working just fine for high-value, high-end customers.

The rest of us are talking about what is holding back typography in apps and how the current licensing regime isn't promoting the use of better fonts in that context. It's right there in the title of the discussion.

In your world, there are two kinds of companies: those so small that nobody will notice when they commit torts, and those of Google's scale.

Obviously that's completely different to what I wrote.

That said, there are hundreds of thousands of apps out there right now. Unless you think someone from each major foundry is checking every one of them to make sure they're not infringing, it is self-evident that there are very many companies so small that nobody will notice if they infringe the copyright on a font or two.

It happens all the time, when creating apps, in professional design work at studios, when creating content in-house, etc. Pretending otherwise is like pretending software doesn't get pirated by small businesses all the time, completely unrealistic. You might not have to be Google's scale to get noticed, but I expect the vast majority of people working professionally with fonts could use any extra ones they downloaded illegally with complete impunity. But every time they do, that's probably a failure of the market to generate some revenue for whoever created that font.

I think the point the article is trying to make is that they would make more money if they didn't price out most (perceived) buyers.

I get the point the article is making, but I think the article is wrong. Just because web nerds don't understand why a good is priced the way it is doesn't make that pricing irrational. You can't even license H+FJ fonts for web applications; they're not even "priced out" - you have to be one of the "cool kids" to use them. H+FJ seems to be doing just fine.

You can't even license H+FJ fonts for web applications; they're not even "priced out" - you have to be one of the "cool kids" to use them.

So in other words, hcarvalhoalves was right, and the state of typography licensing in general really is a mess.

No, products not being made available to you on the terms and pricing you demand do not mean the market in which those products are offered is a "mess". The perspective you (and this posting) espouse is profoundly narcissistic.

No, products not being made available to you on the terms and pricing you demand do not mean the market in which those products are offered is a "mess".

Perhaps not, but a product not being made available at all means the market is a mess.

We're not talking about some scarce physical product. We're talking about information and creativity, which in the modern world can be trivially reproduced at negligible marginal cost. And we're talking about applying that information in different contexts, in some cases completely unchanged and in other cases being transformed in ways that might require no additional work from the original creator.

Copyright exists in law, and I have often defended it on the basis that it serves a useful economic purpose in encouraging the creation and distribution of new works despite the low marginal cost of reproduction. But it is an economic tool, not an ethical one. If a work isn't made available by its creator for some reasonable price on useful terms, then there is a reasonable argument for removing the legal protection and letting anyone who wants a copy have one regardless, because the creator demonstrably wasn't going to benefit economically from those people anyway so no harm has been done.

It's exactly the same argument that applies to patent trolls. Patents are fundamentally an artificial legal barrier to doing something you could otherwise do. The only possible justification for imposing such artificial constraints on individual freedoms in the first place is that they serve some greater good for society (and some would argue with it even then, but let's talk about what the law actually says today). When you reach the point where patents aren't being exploited by a patent holder who is actually working to make the documented inventions, and they're just a legal club to extract money from other people or act as an artificial barrier to entry for disruptive entrants in the market, it's time to change the system so either it encourages the greater good it's supposed to or the artificial barriers are removed entirely.

There is no reasonable comparison between a patent troll, who precludes you from benefiting from your own creative work, and a type foundry.

Of course there is. If a type foundry has sold you a font, but then says you can't share work you made using that font with other people even though the PDF file is identical to what they'd let you use in-house, that has an obvious and fairly direct comparison to the situation where a patent troll says you can't do something because although you have built an entire new thing they have a patent on some part of it and won't let you licence it. I see only two major differences:

1. You actually paid the type foundry money.

2. Even patent hoarders can get hit in some jurisdictions by things like compulsory licensing, FRAND obligations, or being legally unable to prevent someone from infringing on their patent, where one way or another they can't actually stop you from using the missing link.

This is a ridiculous argument. Patent trolls deprive makers of the fruits of their own creative and engineering work based on bogus monopolies on ideas. Font foundries license their fonts.

Love Open Fonts!

Wrote my doctoral thesis[0] in LaTeX, typeset in Gentium Plus and other Open SIL fonts[1].

[0] http://escholarship.umassmed.edu/gsbs_diss/562/

[1] http://scripts.sil.org/cms/scripts/page.php?item_id=Gentium

This is a huge reason why I currently only use and only recommend using openly licensed fonts (OFL, Apache, etc). The state of openly licensed fonts has significantly improved in the past 3 years.

I've been bitten by this licensing problem many times. For some beautiful well-known fonts, fees can be in the 10s of thousands of dollars if you want multiple weights….

The author is correct that app licensing is in its infancy, just like webfonts licensing was completely unstructured a few years ago.

Constructing this as some sort of malicious action of foundries is quite far from the truth, though.

In the fairy land of foundries, there's the great and unrivaled king – Monotype – and then there's a thousand princelings with a few princes (Adobe, FontFont) sparkled in between.

Type is a TINY market. In a back of the envelope calculation last year, I found that the whole type industry is generating around $120m – $150m in sales every year. Monotype/Linotype is around $50m of that pie already. Adobe Type is another $20m is I recall correctly. FontFont is a private company but I take their overall revenue is something like $10m.

Most other foundries are 2 men operations that produce a small profit but not enough to make huge technological investments like hand-hinting the complete back catalog.

At that point a foundry has three options:

1) Not offer their catalog for web- and app licensing at all. The respected resellers / foundry VLLG (Village, http://vllg.com) does this currently, for example.

2) Offer them on request, with the possibility of having a conversation with the customer about their expectations and what they're really getting for their money. See the note in the sidebar on http://commercialtype.com/typefaces/atlas as an example for this.

3) Offer them no matter what rendering quality on Windows devices they can achieve.

While horrible Windows rendering this does not apply to mobile app licensing due to better rendering engines and high-resolution displays on most current devices, it's still a large effort for most small foundries. Setting up the products in the e-commerce backend is the smallest part of that. And all that effort is a bet on (currently) a very small possible return.

And last but not least, one thing to understand is that most foundries make a huge percentage (60%+) of their money licensing large volumes to bigger companies. One corporate design may include office fonts for 500 workstations. While I personally love selling to small studios and startups that love our work, it's not what pays the bills.

I just went through this exact situation a few days ago. The designer of the app chose Avenir, which is included in iOS 6 but is not part of Android, so I reached out to Linotype to find out how to license it for an Android app. The responses were confusing and inexact (and slow - apparently they only have sales staff in Germany, and I'm in California, so the time difference means every go round takes a whole day). After 2-3 email exchanges I gave up trying to get a coherent answer and we're using a bundled-with-Android font. Oh well!

You have to consider that it's trivially easy to extract the full fonts from the app the enduser receives. For iOS just unzip the .ipa file, go to the Resources folder et voilà.

I thought that too might prevent foundries to license their fonts, but it turns out that services like typekit are in fact already putting these fonts online, without any real guarantee against pirating. It's just not very convenient to do right now, but definitely doable, as stated by typekit themselves : http://blog.typekit.com/2009/07/21/serving-and-protecting-fo...

So, if foundries are allowing that on the web, why the special treatment in native apps? That is one of the points of the article.

If someone is able and willing to do that, wouldn't that person likewise be able to extract the full fonts from a website using such a font? If so, I'm not sure what your point is.

Still, having to inquire about the price of something that my brain perceives as a commodity is jarring.

Love this line.

http://www.youworkforthem.com offers licensing for mobile apps at checkout. Interestingly, the price difference between eBook and mobile app is the same.

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