Friday, September 14, 2012

Fonts and Free Beer

This is the second post in a series. Part 1 and Part 3.

The world of Intellectual Property, Licenses, and Copyrights has become ever more complicated with the rise of the Internet and digital formats. In my previous post, I went into the long and complicated story of fonts. In the 70s, the birth of role playing games occurred and at the same time, digital font portfolios owned by "font foundry" corporations rose to prominence.

Fortunately, something else occurred in the 70s that mirrors the issue of using a font in a pdf publication. A young fellow by the name of Richard Stallman worked at MIT in their computer lab department. He had to work with a printer driver that was provided by another company, and he was frustrated that the driver did not work correctly.

Being a smart fellow, he set about trying to get the source code, but was taken aback by the licensing the company had put into place to prevent tinkering. He felt that source code should be open so that others could contribute, improve and build off one another. With this in mind, he set about trying to come up with a license of his own that would enforce the openness of source code. And so, the GNU public license was born (abbreviated GPL).

Richard Stallman
During the 90s, the Linux operating system was making great strides into the corporate world. The dot com bubble was still expanding, and there was talk of Linux taking over the desktop market. Linux was licensed under the GPL and having restrictive fonts in the operating system was antithetical to the philosophy it was built under.

Microsoft released a font pack for free that could be used on Linux, but it is important to make a distinction between "free as in a free beer" and "free as in freedom to do what you want with". The Microsoft fonts were still "owned" by their respective companies. It was still questionable if you could utilize them in your own digital projects for public consumption.

Similarly, during the 90s, there were a lot of shady companies that were releasing shareware font packs. Quite a few individuals would take a lot of the popular fonts and file off the serial numbers, rename the font, and then license it out to make money. It seems that those fonts still float around on the Internet on free font websites, but their use for a legitimate product is questionable.

Fan sites of all subjects, no matter how small or great, started to pop up during this era. One of the questions asked was, "What fonts did TSR use in their products?". Aardy R. DeVarque did a great job of compiling a list of products and their corresponding fonts.

In addition to the traditional corporate font that was used, the FAQ/List would try to list similar fonts. Unfortunately, quite a few of the fonts on the list are actually just illegal copies. For example, the early editions of Basic D&D used the Souvenir Demi font which was popular in the 70s... The FAQ lists Soutane as an alternative, but Soutane was produced by Weatherly Systems Inc. which has shut down after a law suit.

You can read about Weatherly Systems here

It is important to know where a font came from and what the licensing is. With that in mind, I took DeVarque's FAQ and started to update it for information that is available today (2012). A lot of time has passed and there are exciting new developments concerning fonts. That will be the topic for the next post but in the mean time, here is a link to the work (still ongoing) that updates DeVarque's FAQ.

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