Copping an Attitude, Part 1

Rudy VanderLans

This article was first published in 1996 in Emigre 38.

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 technology.

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 start-up foundries known for its many experimental student typefaces.

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 practised 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.

Bad Attitude

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 their fonts.

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 permission. 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.

Attitude Adjustment

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.

For examples of a more considered approach to typeface design, check out the work and ideas of the designers featured in John Downer’s article. And to show that genuine type experimentation still exists, we have published in this issue projects by Susan LaPorte, Margo Johnson and Stephen Farrell. If there’s anything there you’d like to copy, I hope it’s ideology.