Apple and Microsoft In Talks On Web Font Protections

Jun 11, 2009

[This is the first post in a two-part series:]
I’ve been following the moves and counter-moves surrounding the implem­ent­ation of font-linking in web browsers for a long time.

Here’s what appears to me to be happening :

Apple and Microsoft are trying to cut a deal. The deal will include a solu­tion to font-linking that’s acceptable to Microsoft and the font in­dustry at large, and also Apple will license Microsoft’s ClearType fonts in addition to the “Web Safe” fonts like Georgia and Verdana they already license. Apple will include the font-link­ing solution in the next version of Safari which, since Safari is based on open-source WebKit, also puts it into WebKit. From there, Google will a­dopt it for their own WebKit-based browser, Chrome. Micro­soft will in­clude it in the next version of IE alongside EOT.

Once this de-facto standard is set, Mozilla will go along and include it in Fire­Fox. Opera will have no choice but to follow. This implementation, what­ever form it takes – a new file format, a special header, whatever – will then ulti­mately be a­dopted as a formal standard by the W3C.
Why do I think this?

Well, before moving on to the reasons, here’s a quick recap of…

The Story Of Web Font Embedding So Far

Font “linking” or “embedding” for HTML pages refers to the CSS3 @font-​face rule that allows web pages to “carry along” with them their own specific fonts, separate and apart from the fonts installed in the local operating sys­tem. This is done by including a link to the URI where the font-file is located within the page’s Cascading Style Sheet.

Microsoft’s Internet Explorer browser has supported this kind of font linking for over ten years. However, IE only supports linking to files created in its own proprietary Embedded OpenType (EOT) format. Labeled by many as a “DRM” format, EOT files are font files specially created and tied to a domain name through light encryption. And, importantly, they are not installable as font files within Windows or any other operating system currently in use.

Why did Microsoft create EOT? Well, mainly because these features act as a deterrent against unlicensed distribution. Microsoft has a big investment in fonts. Without some protection against casual downloading, obtaining an in­stall­able font-file is as easy as 1) viewing the source HTML of the web page, and 2) typing the URL to the font file in the address bar of the browser. The font is then yours. In other words, downloading a re-usable font file would be nearly as easy as right-clicking an image and selecting “Save Image As”.

What has created great urgency is that this scenario of easy “drive-by piracy” has emerged in reality. First, Apple implemented font linking to installable TTF and OTF files in their Safari browser. Next, Mozilla decided to follow suit with FireFox 3.5. Lastly, Opera 10 Beta, just released, also supports link­ing to TTF files. (Early tests show OTF support missing.)

As you can imagine, font-makers are greatly alarmed by this. And these font-makers include major software companies with big investments in fonts like Microsoft and Adobe. To them, the situation is unacceptable.

Last year, in an effort to prevent this scenario, Microsoft submitted EOT to the W3C for consideration as a standard. They also made it clear that they were not pushing EOT as an end-all/be-all solution but were open to any sug­gestions as long as it provided a platform for licensed fonts.

As Chris Wilson, then Platform Architect for the Internet Explorer team, wrote at the time:

“I’ve been clear on this to the CSS WG, so I suppose I should be here too – we (Microsoft) should NOT support direct TTF/OTF embedding, un­less 1) there is some check that the font intended that use to be allowed, which I don’t think there currently is (as it needs to refer to the license agreement), AND 2) other browsers also implement a system that actual­ly ENABLES commercial fonts – those that are allowed to be embedded, but cannot be legally placed directly on a server – to be used. As I also stated to the WG – I don’t personally even care that much if that system is EOT as it is today; I’d be okay with building a new system if the details of EOT were a sticking point. But I want to use commercial fonts on my web pages, I want that to work interoperably across browsers, and I want to not have to violate my license for the fonts I use (and get sued for it) in order to make that happen. A solution that only works for freeware fonts is not a solution.
Is that too much to ask?”

In response to this, a working group to evaluate the proposal was formed and on October 23rd of 2008, a meeting took place. In the face of objections by John Daggett of Mozilla and Håkon Wium Lie of Opera, it became clear the proposal was going nowhere. To those unfamiliar with the inner workings of the W3C, the minutes from that initial meeting can be an eye-opener.

Chips On The Table: Stakes Are High For Both Sides

Apple Needs Microsoft’s “Web Safe” Fonts
Ever wonder how the handful of fonts used in web pages today just happen to be installed by default in both Windows and Mac? It’s no accident. Apple licenses those fonts from Microsoft. And sooner or later, the licensing term will be up. This is bargaining leverage for Microsoft. Failure to renew is not an option for Apple. Negotiating a new spec that enables commercial font-linking in Safari is simply an extension of an existing licensee/licensor relationship that already exists. The lines of communication are already in place.

Apple Needs Microsoft’s ClearType Fonts
As web accessibility expert and typophile Joe Clark wrote back in 2005, it makes a lot of sense for Apple to license the Cleartype fonts. But screen technology has changed greatly in the last four years and today the situation is more critical. Apple needs these fonts to update not only the Mac but the iPhone, which has become a substantial platform for E-Books. The need for high quality, scalable screen fonts is great.

Broad Historical Precedent
Copyright squabbles like this are usually settled between the parties involved. The W3C is a standards organization; it’s not where you go to negotiate a cross-licensing deal. Submitting EOT for review was good Public Relations, but given the “free and open” philosophy of many of the WQC’s members, it was always a long shot. Personally, I was greatly surprised by Safari’s support for linking to “raw” installable font files like TTF and OTF. Given Microsoft’s position on the issue, it was a slap in the face. But if you look at it as a move in light of upcoming negotiations which would soon be taking place anyway, it makes a lot more sense. To the extent that Micro­soft’s interests as a font-maker coincides with others like Adobe, LinoType, and Bitstream, it’s more than likely they will line up behind.

The Alternative “Nuclear” Option Is Very Unappealing
There could be a big, expensive, legal fight over this. Microsoft, joined by Adobe and others in the font industry, could sue Apple and Mozilla for “contributory infringement” along the lines of MGM Studios vs. Grokster.
But this would invite a possible public relations disaster. And because it’s a browser issue as much as a fonts-as-intellectual-properties issue, there may be further anti-trust considerations at work. Plus this area of copyright law is still very shaky. It’s hard to tell which way the winds might blow.

There is evidence this route has been considered, however. Back in 2006 font maker Ascender Corp. was commissioned by Microsoft to do an ex­haust­ive survey of existing font sets available on the web. It’s nearly 1700 pages long. Why? You could take a statistical sampling and come to the same conclusions. Most of the fonts available on the web suck. But viewed in the light of possible legal action, Ascender’s study is exactly the kind of detailed documentation one would undertake to prove that there was, at present, no “substantial non-infringing use”. The argument being that an unrestricted font-linking mechanism within a browser is good for little else but infringing copyrighted materials. As a researcher and web guy, I’m grateful the information was compiled. But I’m sure it’s true purpose was as legal fodder and I wouldn’t be surprised if it was initiated at the request of Microsoft’s IP attorneys in the course of reviewing possible legal options.
This is the only explanation for the Ascender survey’s existence that ever made any sense to me.

Coming Next: More Behind The Scenes Info And An Analysis Of Ascender/Microsoft’s New Proposal For A Web Font File Format…

[Update: Bill Davis of Ascender Corp. informs me via blog post on Typophile, that Apple's licensing of the ClearType fonts is an issue quite separate and apart from any involving font-linking. And that Apple has been and remains free to license or not license these fonts at any time.]

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