Appropriation and Type - before and today | osp blog

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Appropriation and Type - before and today

Appropriation has been a recurring and accepted strategy in defining typography as activity and business. We can pinpoint four cases where appropriation has definitely been key in defining landmarks in the history of type, not only aiding the breaking of technical and creative boundaries but also helping to question legal and moral ones.

We'll go on to briefly analyse the current situation in typography, focusing on the approach to the subject by corporations, users and designers. The current business model (digital foundries, font files with copyrights) is, as we'll argue, a remnant of a time where a typeface filled a whole drawer and fails to account for the necessary changes that the information age demands; we'll conclude with the definition of an essentially contradictory business model that has very strong stands against "font forging" and copyright issues, although it has historically - and now, more than ever - thrived on constant, and often uncredited, appropriation of ideas and designs.

1. Appropriation in type through history

  • The Gutenberg press
  • Stanley Morison and Monotype
  • Arial
  • Segoe

2. The digital typography paradigm

  • Corporate type
  • User type
  • Designer type

3. Tweaking and reviving
4. Technology on arcane standards
5. What now

a. Notes
b. References
c. Online references

1. Appropriation in type through history

We could certainly identify many more instances of inspiration or downright copying of ideas in typography, but these four cases will suffice to demonstrate the different uses of copy, inspiration and appropriation in general. Our focus here will be on the issue of creative appropriation (inspiration) on one hand, and corporate business models and copyright issues (plagiarism) on the other.

i. The Gutenberg Press

In 1450, Johannes Gutenberg produced the first commercially viable model of his printing press, which was widely used for centuries until the advent of the Linotype machine, the first way to automate, though partially, the type setting and printing process.
Gutenberg's press was the result of the combination of five key methods and processes, three - possibly four - of which were not original:

  • The screw press, which was already used by the Greeks and Romans to process olive oil and wine.
  • Block printing, present in China since 594 AD. Gutenberg's innovation was to use metal cast types (instead of the Chinese traditional woodblock printing), although metal typecasting was already developed in Korea around 1230 AD.
  • Letter punches, which were a goldsmithing technique - Gutenberg was a goldsmith - used to engrave letters in metal pieces.
  • Letter replica casting, a method to quickly create new individual characters, along with a particular metal alloy that made for durable pieces. This method has been attributed to Gutenberg but recent studies shed doubts on this fact.
  • Metal-adherent ink, devised by Gutenberg.

This shows that originality is not a straightforward issue, in a time before copyrights existed (it was not before 1700 that the first copyright statute appeared in Britain), the protection of ideas could have changed the fate of this invention. the combination of methods made. What matters here is that they were combined in a way that made typography as we know it possible, and there seems to be absolutely no question to the legitimacy of this invention, which was made possible by appropriating previous methods and processes. Gutenberg's model of printing stood firm for centuries until the Linotype machine introduced partial automation of the printing process.

ii. Stanley Morison and Monotype

On 1886, the Linotype machine began to be produced by the Mergenthaler Printing Co. in the United States. It wouldn't take long, though (a year) for Lanston Monotype to begin production of their own fully-automated typesetting machine, devised by Tolbert Lanston.

In 1922, Stanley Morison was appointed as typographic advisor of the Monotype Corporation (the British branch of the Philadephia company), a post he would keep until 1967. The Monotype Corporation built an extensive catalog of cuts made by Morison from classic references, such as Bodoni, Bembo, Baskerville, and several others. These revivals helped to bring general interest to the old masters' works, besides consisting of a general market strategy to try to push up the value of the Monotype machine - the faces available would definitely determine the decision of a buyer who fancies a particular style, and thus the Monotype Corporation had no qualms about recruiting all the classics (which were in the public domain).

It is tremendously unfair, though, to portray Morison as a hijacker - he was one of the hallmarks of 20th century type, being responsible for the creation of Times New Roman and hugely influencing the field of typography to the present day by the efforts he dedicated to bringing the classics to the general public - legitimately appropriating other designs. Without Morison's endeavour, our legacy would certainly be poorer today.

iii. Arial, Monotype and Microsoft

1982 is the year in which the Arial typeface was released by Monotype Typography (Monotype Corporation's type design division). Designed by Robin Nicholas and Patricia Saunders, this typeface had a remarkable issue. Not only does it have obvious similarities to other modern sans-serifs (sharing features with Helvetica, Univers and Akzidenz Grotesk), it exactly mirrors the glyph width tables from Helvetica, which is the data included in a font file that describes each character's dimensions. An exact match that gives little chance for coincidence.

Microsoft licensed Arial from Monotype instead of the more expensive Helvetica, and in 1990 it was bundled with Microsoft Windows 3.1. It has been a staple of Windows systems until today. This is a specific case where a typeface was chosen not by its genuine creative and/or practical value but by external reasons, in this case backed by financial motives. Type designers are almost unanimous in shunning Arial as a lesser typeface: it is notably absent from Robert Bringhurst's typeface selection in The Elements of Typographic Style (the current all-around reference on type design from the designer's perspective), and is also only mentioned as a passing remark on Robin Nicholas's entry on the typographic encyclopedic survey by Friedl et al[1]. This is pretty much a clear notion of the type designers' community on the Arial issue; it's also worth noting that there has been, however, no attempt to replace Arial as a standard font in operating systems[2].

In strict legal/copyright terms, it's appropriate to compare the Arial case to a cheating student who argues that the fact that his exam has exact passages from his nearest classmates' exams owes to coincidence. It's reasonable to argue that borrowing from three sources rather than just one does not make the situation more acceptable.

So Arial stands in mixed principles: the type community is almost unanimous in calling shenanigans, but it still made its way to our current operating systems despite that fact - it never met any legal actions.

iv. Segoe

In early 2006, Microsoft announced a significant effort to dignify type design in their upcoming Vista operating system: six type designers - Lucas de Groot and Robin Nicholas figuring among them - were comissioned to design appropriate typefaces for screen and print. The result was six very attractive fonts that not only could appeal to general uses by less savvy people, but also soothe the type designers' fancy.

Another font included in Vista is Segoe, a revival of Frutiger Next (which in turn is a revival of Frutiger) that Microsoft licensed from Monotype and altered. It's not the first case in which Adrian Frutiger's work has been remade: Adobe's Myriad and Apple's Podium Sans also bear a striking resemblance to Frutiger's structure. When Microsoft registered Segoe in Europe in 2004, Linotype sued for copyright infringement since European law, unlike the American one, recognises the rights to font designs (although patent law is often used to circumvent this legal void in the US).

The most significant fact is that Microsoft based their defense not on the issue of originality - stating the differences between Segoe and Frutiger Next, but on the fact that Linotype wasn't selling its typeface in Europe when the request was filed. This situation could very well be interpreted as an admission by Microsoft's part that the font in fact owes credit to Frutiger's design.

This case becomes all more revealing in that it's a high-profile and current example of an attempt to settle the authenticity of a type design in courts. Unlike Arial, it didn't sneak past the critics and found serious hurdles while Microsoft tried to implement it in its Windows OS. A verdict on the Segoe case is expected in early 2007.

2. The digital typography paradigm

Typography, and type design in particular, is historically defined by a constant recursion of past themes and trends, be it as inspiration - revivals - or as a way to question them - as in post-modern type examples, such as Emigre's or David Carson's work. Nevertheless, modern designs still owe heavily (with or without credit) to a tradition of arts and crafts spanning five centuries.

Meanwhile, on the last 20 years, the type world hasn't ceased discussing the issue of rights and plagiarism, a discussion that was sparked by the digital revolution and the introduction of the personal computer as an all-purpose design and production tool. This shift implied that the tools used in typography and book production ceased to be the sole domain of type makers, printers and book publishers - the only ones that could afford the initial investment of a type foundry, workshop or printing press and manage it effectively. Designing type soon became cheaper and cheaper, as the physical footprint of the new tools gradually became smaller and smaller. Nowadays, a computer and a printer can do in minutes what a huge phototypesetting equipment would have taken a lot of time, effort and money to produce 10 years ago.

The most important effect of the digital revolution in type design is that typefaces became fonts - a radical change in that they were no more lead blocks but data, files that describe how each glyph should be drawn on screen or on a printer. FontForge, a free software solution to type design, was released in 2004, doing away with any software costs involved in font creation and editing, meaning the only overhead for a type design business would be a PC, paper, drawing tools, an image-capture device (scanner or camera) and eventually an Internet connection. This change has massive repercussions in the whole typography market: now type design wouldn't, in theory, require any kind of intermediaries between the typographer/designer and its audience. Reality developed otherwise, as we will see from three standpoints in typography usage and creation.

i. Corporate Type

The digital revolution made a deep re-definition of most areas of study possible. We will show, though, that the field of typography has been lagging behind when it comes to taking advantage of the digital medium. Moreover, the corporate business model has failed to account for the specific needs and features of information technology, sticking to an artificial market sustained by an inflated value attributed to digital files as if they still were physical objects that are owned.

Nowadays, there are three major players in the type business: Microsoft, Adobe and Monotype Imaging.

Apple Computer hasn't been a key figure in the type market (concentrating on developing font technology for its operating system), but it had an essential role in developing the actual playing field. Apple heralded the personal computer era in with their original Macintosh and has intermittently collaborated and competed with Microsoft and Adobe, being responsible for the development of the TrueType font format along with Microsoft as a response to Adobe's high-priced PostScript Type I font description format. The release of TrueType in 1991 forced Adobe to gradually reduce prices and eventually follow suit, releasing the PostScript specifications so that software developers could implement it without limitations in their programs.

Adobe Systems Inc., besides being responsible for a highly successful suite of imaging and DTP software, has a very strong position in the type market: not only is it a type vendor (through its typography division, Adobe Type) but also the most influential company in the sense that it owns most digital design solutions - especially after acquiring its main rival Macromedia in April 2005 and facing no significant competition in its market.

Microsoft is responsible for creating the most widely used operating system, as well as the most popular office suite. Along with Adobe, Microsoft developed the currently dominant OpenType file format, which is freely available to developers as long as they agree to the licensing terms. Adobe converted its entire type collection to OpenType in a move to spread the new standard.

Monotype Imaging is now a distant remnant of Tolbert Lanston's original creation. It has adjusted technical breakthroughs in the 20th century and claimed a staunch position in today's digital type market. It was acquired by Agfa in 1999 forming Agfa Monotype, which in turn was acquired by TA Associates (a North American investment firm), changing its name to Monotype Imaging and developing a position in font software and rendering engines, and also securing a strong standpoint in the font vendor market after acquiring its rival Linotype (and the rights to their entire type collection).

ii. User Type

Most people get introduced to digital type by means of text editors. The digital revolution would be the perfect reason to finally open typography to everyone and make it a mainstream subject instead of a limited-access craft. Things have happened otherwise, though, and the inability to create a suitable interface for allowing basic experimentation with type has severely crippled the possibilities of the new medium.

The font selection paradigm has changed little during the years, offering a whole collection of typefaces in a drop-down menu. Such is the immediateness of digital type: It's just there, no need to open drawers with thousands of lead characters. Users are encouraged, by means of a simple GUI, to just pick their font and get to work on their document. Even more: you don't even need to pick, just stick with the default choice the software maker's made for you. Word processing interfaces also assume the user doesn't want to be bothered with layout choices such as margins, structure - and they also make the choice for us (incidentally, they also made it quite awkward to change these defaults). In short: the standard word-processing interface tells users to not bother with type.

This paradigm helps to build the general perception that a font is a finished, shrink-wrapped and untouchable product - pretty much like prepackaged software. Although font files can be opened and edited as long as we have an appropriate editor, most typeface editors are either crude or catering exclusively to the type designer market. The user usually isn't able to reach the underpinnings and intricacies of type, instead being expected just to understand that the default template is more than enough.

Such an approach to software designing effectively discourages any kind of interest in typographic issues by the general public, and helps to fuel the thought that fonts are "just there". It's worth noting that there is still no easy and streamlined way to buy, install and use fonts, unlike most other digital markets - iTunes would be a good example of that kind of market strategy.

iii. Designer Type

The type designer community is centered on the study of classical and modern examples and making attempts to postulate theory and practical guidelines for the craft of type design, sitting somewhere between the methods of architecture and those of poetry.

Fred Smeijers's analysis of the type designer's duty, in his manifesto Type Now, is quite straightforward. On the issue of responsibility of type designers and commitment to specific guidelines, he states that "a type designer cannot escape this responsibility of judgment (...). In the end, people - the society - either accept it or they don't"[3]. Society, it seems, would be the ultimate judge of whether a typeface is a hallmark of craft or doomed to failure.

On the other hand, we find a curious account on Smeijers's description on Fontana, a typeface by Ruben Fontana inspired by Meta [4]: he describes it as "uncomplicated", "tres sympathique", "sunny" and "open minded". This certainly sounds more like a description of a person or a song than that of an object, and indeed sheds some doubt on the touted objectiveness of good type design in the sense that it seems unable to find serious and objective terms to classify a typeface's features. Historical categorisations of design tendencies vary from author to author, and although there are some widely used terms to describe historical periods and typeface features, such as "transitional type" or "slab serifs", there's a tendency to borrow from poetry and music to identify a type family's "soul" (which, though relevant from an artist or a historian's point of view, is rather unscientific).

This is not a contradiction, though, since we can distinguish between type as a creative activity (in which there would be no problem with this kind of analogy) and type as an industry and commodity (where profit, market tendency, shareholder demands and legal requirements imply that things have a definite value and purpose). Naturally, Smeijers's interest is on the craft and art of typography, and not the market and the economic relationships that it spawns. On the other hand, our interest is definitely that which Smeijers doesn't care for.

We need to account that defending the status of type as a functional solution to practical problems requires an objective set of rules that derive from the way we read and write. We cannot yet account for matters of objective legibility while we don't possess all information on our mental processes and the mechanisms in the brain involved in acquiring and processing written information - this is the field of cognitive psychology and neuroscience.

We know, from history, that a text with generous linespacing will certainly read better than other with no linespacing at all. The German blackletter used by Gutenberg in his Bible, however, is almost unreadable to a contemporary westerner's eyes and definitely alien to someone from a non-Western background. In the fifteenth century, though, it was certainly the norm. History can help to avoid repeating mistakes, but it also shows the relative importance of our current standards.

In short, we still cannot objectively define type, and won't be able to before a major breakthrough in neural science. However, copyright issues and legal matters impose formal specifications on what a font is and what it is not. Whether a typeface is a tweak, a revival or a work of art is left to the courts.

3. Tweaking and reviving

In order to explain the type designer's first reluctance to embrace the digital alternative, and also understand how design processes are not as straightforward as they are presented to us, we'll concentrate on Fred Smeijers's account on the current state of events in typography. Specifically, we'll borrow his term font tweaking [5]. This process consists of loading a font, "tweaking" it - altering small details - and releasing them with different names, thereby circumventing copyright laws (US law protects font names as trademarks, but not font designs). Smeijers is clear in pointing that font tweakers have nothing to do with type design at all, reinforcing the distinction between doing type as a labour of love and doing it for a profit.

Font revivals, on the other hand, are re-interpretations of existing designs, and our best example would be Morison's effort in bringing the classical designs into the Monotype type library. Revivals matter to us because they aren't original productions (as they draw inspiration from existing designs) but aren't copies either (because no rights over them could be warranted otherwise, since there would be no original idea).

Digital type foundries and vendors still maintain the tradition, digitising and redoing the old masters' work. It's worth noting that even if a certain typeface, such as those with expired copyrights, resides in the public domain, anyone can make a digital version - a revival - and claim the rights to it.

Digital type catalogues are rife with revivals: In Bringhurst's inventory of digital foundries[6], we can find 14 that issue revivals, and 4 that only release original designs. This interest in resuscitating previous designs also has motives that stand apart from simple typographic archaeology. Revivals are routinely issued by vendors and foundries to protect the rights of the rightsholder when a typeface's copyright is about to expire. Such is the case with Avenir LT, Adobe Garamond and Frutiger Next - which is what allowed Linotype to retain the rights to the original design and be able to sue Microsoft.

Revivals reside in a kind of legal in-between - some, like Arial (which is more a tweak than a declared revival), manage to stick around; while others, like Segoe, raise copyright lawyers' eyebrows.

Given these two aspects, one cannot but wonder that a type designer wouldn't be thrilled with this perspective. One has also to question why there is such a rift in reactions between font tweaking and font revivals, which can be interpreted as no more than corporate font tweaking. A practical example of this is's description of the Avenir LT font (link, down the page) - a "recut version of Avenir", stating that "The 'LT' was added to the name as the metrics differ from the original version". This definitely corresponds to Smeijers' description of font tweaking, despite the fact that the name change wasn't intended to avoid legal troubles, but to assert the brand of the author of the revival. What is a revival, then, other than a corporate-sanctioned font tweak?

4. Technology on arcane standards

The current terminology used in typography is also a clear signal of how it still depends on former traditions instead of adapting to its new medium.

Digital typography's rules and terminology have been determined by its physical counterparts, and that still hasn't changed. For example, we still talk about "leading" - a term for the spacing between lines that takes its name from the lead strips used for that purpose - although the term "line spacing" is gradually replacing it in user-oriented applications such as Microsoft Word.

Another example: while type foundries got that name because of their heavy use of metal, single-person studios with Macs are still referred to as "foundries". And fonts are described as being "cut" or "cast", more than "digitised". We talk about "digital versions" instead of digital copies, perhaps to preserve their history and soul and not treat them as just another file in a user's computer.

Although we can forgive this persistence in using traditional typesetting terms (mayhap as a historic homage), it also is a symptom that the type activity and business have failed to redefine themselves for the digital medium. On the other hand, these examples can actually be interpreted as quite an artificial and linguistic way to value the work of the typographer, probably with the aim of distinguishing between "true" type designers and mere font tweakers, and not let "true" typography be contaminated by the creeping tweaker threat.

5. Now

Given that digital type is hanging around for thirty years, the progress in improving on font technology and taking advantage of the digital medium has been rather dim. On the other hand, type designers in general (with the exception of rare cases such as Emigre or Letterror) have not tried to get to grips with font technology, rather limiting themselves to drawing and tracing their designs in Fontographer and selling them on major font vendors (MyFonts, Monotype) or independent ones (such as T26 and Veer). Worse still, issues of originality and plagiarism have been discussed in type design circles, but corporate entities break them routinely while trying, at the same time, to assert their rights in courts.

The difference between major and minor vendors is not substantial: though distributors like Veer try to create a community and improve on the users' and designers' experience compared to major sellers through research, designer spotlights and support, digital typefaces are still regarded in an esoteric limbo between metal characters and abstract data. And though the price tags have steadily declined (and recently stabilised in the 20 dollar range in general), it is revealing that business models like iTunes or Flickr, or collaborative methods in producing typefaces (many typographers are still lone workers) haven't shown up yet, and that file formats have changed so little in the face of recent, sleeker solutions like XML and SVG. And there's little hope for innovation: the Adobe-Macromedia and Monotype-Linotype mergers have paved the ground for a corporate monoculture ruled by software and typeface vendors and distributors, with very little margin for competition.

We can also point a mutual apathy between commercial developers and designers as a possible reason - type designers try to adapt to outdated ways - file formats and type tools - to create their works, while developers lag in keeping up to date to new breakthroughs. Limiting the tools is limiting the imagination.

On the other hand, font vendors have an incredibly contradictory stance regarding font rights, using copyright law to protect their products while violating it to borrow from others'. The different fate of Arial and Segoe begs the question: are the vendors and distributors handling this as it should be handled?

This model's obvious contradictions definitely invite serious questioning as to the legitimacy and validity of the current type market and business model, which cannot effectively release its standards and technology because of the threat of competition. It's therefore left to users, designers and independent developers to shape a new way of defining type and creating effective communication channels between providers and users, be it through online communities or real-world discussion in type designer's circles and colleges.

If type takes the free/open source route - the wheels are already in motion - how can type vendors sustain their profit margins and their markets? With open fonts and free font-editing software around, there would be little doubt that typography can take a very interesting turn. Could we also see the open approach and the business approach coexist, catering to specific users' needs, whether amateur or professional? And, finally, will the type world come to terms with the fact that appropriation and use of other's ideas have defined the activity since its beginnings, and that it implies a serious rethinking of concepts such as authorship, plagiarism and author's rights?

[Note: this text was written as part of my MA studies at the Piet Zwart Institute. Please do post any comments or corrections in the comment box below!]

a. Notes

[1] Friedl, Ott, Stein: Typography: An encyclopedic survey of type design and techniques through history. (p. 409)
[2] Arial is now a "standard" font of web typography, being part of a very limited set of fonts that all browsers can read.
[3] Smeijers, Fred: Type Now. (p.25)
[4] id., p. 40
[5] id., p. 32
[6] Bringhurst, Robert: The Elements of Typographic Style. (p.309)

b. References

  • Bringhurst, Robert: The Elements of Typographic Style. Vancouver, Hartley & Marks, 2002.
  • Smeijers, Fred: Type Now. London, Hyphen Press, 2003.
  • Friedl, Ott, Stein: Typography: An encyclopedic survey of type design and techniques through history. London, Black Dog & Leventhal, 1998.
  • Steinberg, S.H., and Trevitt, John: Five Hundred Years of Printing (4th Revised edition). London, Oak Knoll Press, 1996.

c: Online references