A small but growing number of designers and institutions are creating typefaces for the public domain. These designers are participating in the broader open source and copyleft movements, which seek to stimulate worldwide creativity via a collective information commons.
This web page provides information and airs ideas about the concept of free fonts. Its annotated appearance reflects my conversations with type designers about the danger and necessity of free fonts.
— Ellen Lupton
* What is a free font?
A free font is not just a typeface that you don’t have to pay for. A stolen (or illegally copied) typeface isn’t free. A free font must be freely given by its maker. And to be truly free, it should be available to everyone, not just to a circle of friends or to the buyers of a particular software package or operating system. Many of the so-called free fonts that are distributed on the Internet don’t meet this description. Like open source software, the freedom of the fonts shown on this page is made explicit through their licensing, which allows other people to not only use the fonts but to modify them (granted that they change the name of the typeface if they alter its design).
** Should all fonts be free?
Typeface design is a profession and a business. If all fonts were free—or even if every type designer created just one free font—the business of typeface design might be destroyed. Today, the free font movement is addressing typeface needs that are not being adequately met by the typeface industry. Most typefaces created in the free font movement are designed to serve relatively small or underserved linguistic communities. They have an explicit social purpose, and they are intended to offer the world not a luxurious outpouring of typographic variation but rather the basics for maintaining literacy and communication within a society.
*** What makes a typeface “good”?
Currently, most fonts created in the open source spirit are produced for small or underserved linguistic populations. Such fonts are “good” in the moral sense. In the future, designers may choose to make free fonts in the service of other social needs as well. For example, in developing countries graphic designers who seek to build a typographic culture in their home regions require more than a bare-minimum typographic vocabulary, and they often rely on pirated typefaces to do so. A richer selection of legitimate free fonts, clearly labelled and promoted as such in an educational way, might help to build respect for the larger commercial ecology of typeface design.
****Is a typeface a meaningful gift to humanity?
In the scheme of things, a typeface may seem like a small gift, so maybe designers and software companies should devote their charitable efforts to more urgent causes. However, I believe that typefaces are valuable, powerful, and beautiful cultural tools, worthy of legal protection and deserving of the price they bring in the Western marketplace. Moreover, a gift of typography makes good on a unique body of skill, knowledge, and passion.
Perhaps the free font movement will continue to grow slowly, along the lines in which it is already taking shape: in the service of creating typefaces that sustain and encourage both the diversity and connectedness of humankind.
These notes were prepared for the aTypi Conference: Typographic Journeys
Lisbon | 2006