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<nettime> appropriation and type
Ricardo Lafuente on Wed, 21 Mar 2007 00:42:19 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> appropriation and type

hello nettimers,

i'd love to know your take on this manuscript, regarding the field
of typography (from Gutenberg to Adobe) and how it has been marked
by appropriation of methods and designs since its baby steps,
how the current typeface business is stands on a long history of
appropriation, imitation and/or inspiration from existing ideas, and
how those issues can raise curious moral and legal questions.

best wishes,


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

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

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?

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

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 MyFonts.com?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

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 the field of typography can take a very
promising 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 this issue implies a serious
rethinking of concepts such as authorship, plagiarism and author?s

[Note: this text was written as part of my MA studies at the Piet
Zwart Institute.]

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

* The Scourge of Arial by Mark Simonson (background and critical account 
on Arial)
* ?Is Microsoft?s Vista Font Just a Copy?? by Brian Livingston (news 
article on the Segoe legal case)
* ?Designer Says Vista Font Is Original? by Brian Livingston (followup 
on the previous story)
* The Funny Font Forging Industry - A Report for Legal Authorities by 
Ulrich Stiehl (an aggressive take on font tweaking and appropriation)

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