[Openfontlibrary] new release of the Ubuntu titling font

Christopher Fynn cfynn at gmx.net
Sun Jan 13 00:10:40 PST 2008

Dave Crossland wrote:

> On 12/01/2008, Karl Berry <karl at freefriends.org> wrote:
>>     whether they're really Free since according to the license you can't
>>     redistribute or modify since you don't have any source code...

>> That seems like an unwarranted conclusion to me.  Anyone can release
>> anything under the GPL (or anything else), if they own the rights to it
>> -- that's nothing about the GPL, it's a basic fact of copyright law.
>> Ipso facto, it is legal to modify/redistribute/rerelease it starting
>> from what was released, since the GPL gives you those rights; given that
>> no better form of the source is available, it becomes the source.

> If you write 10,000 lines of C, compile it, and give me the binary
> "under the GPL," I reason that I cannot redistribute the binary
> because I cannot fulfill all the obligations of the GPL to my
> recipients when I try to do so. Section 7 of GPLv2 makes this clear.

For the most part people who create fonts tend to look upon themselves as 
"creative types" / artists rather than as technicians or programmers.
Most fonts are also created / designed in a font editor and the generally the
creator / designer never looks at any thing like "source code".

OK the closet thing to source code ma be something like the FontForge /
FontLab file used to create the font *plus* additional things used like MS
Volt project files, Adobe feature files,  python scripts, etc. Though you can 
quibble about  details or particular fonts it is questionable whether *in most 
cases* these "sources" contain much if anything that is very significant or 
useful beyond what can easily be extracted from the font file itself.

I don't think the fonts & compiled executables are comparable.
One cannot easily decompile a binary originally written in C and
come up with anything that looks like the "source code" used to write the 
program - or perhaps more to the point directly import a compiled executable 
directly into a programming IDE and make changes - in the way you can import a 
font file into a font editor and start making changes.

>> Anyway, in general, no argument that a font is more than the basic glyph
>> shapes, and the "preferred form" of the source is highly desirable.
>> However, I still don't think releasing font outlines is comparable to
>> releasing a compiled binary.
> For C programs, a compiled object code file that is encoded as binary
> data (a.out) has less information than the source code file that is
> encoded as text data (foo.c).
> For fonts, a "generated" object font file that is encoded as binary
> data (font.otf) has less information than the source code file that is
> encoded as text data (SFD+XGF for FontForge and XGridFit)

> (NB 1: Since the GPL requires the "preferred form" of source for the
> work, binary FontLab VFB source files are acceptable.)

> (NB 2: Nor does the GPL require that the work depend only on free
> software, so FontLab VFB source files are acceptable.)

Not necessarily - you can extract *all* the outline, hinting, OpenType tables
etc from the final font. - If some kind of "auto hinting" was used while 
generating the font the final font may in fact contain much more information 
than the original VFB or other "source" file.

What you may be missing are things like guidelines (usually easily extrapolated) 
or build scripts (not used for many fonts) - How significant are these in most 

> So they are entirely comparable to me, and your distinction seems
> contradictory to me.

> Therefore, a GPL font without sources may not be redistributable.

> I am not a lawyer, so I really want to speak to a lawyer about this,
> and will be doing so very soon :-)

Extracting the significant source code from the font file itself is trivial and
in many cases more accessible in that final format than in e.g a FontLab VFB 
file. - So, to me, this seems an unnecessary restriction in the case of fonts.

If GPL does force this should it be considered appropriate license to use for 
fonts ??

>> The font information that is always
>> present in a ttf or pfb or whatever is a lot more
>> accessible/retrievable/usable than anything you can do with object code.
> Font data like point coordinates is, by nature, a machine-readable
> kind of data and the binary formats would be okay to reverse but are
> published formats anyway (afaik)

Yes the Type1, TrueType, CFF, OpenType and other font formats are publicly

> This means that a weak-copyleft like the OFL is acceptable and
> strategically desirable; that is, highly recommended when the
> alternative is "redistribution but non-modification" or worse "non
> commercial" bullshit.

> However, that is not always the case. For example, the Ubuntu Titling
> font is under a medium-copyleft and it makes no sense to me to license
> it under a weaker ones. The LGPL sits with an essay explaining why it
> is important to not to use it when this is unstrategic for the
> software freedom movement,
> http://www.gnu.org/licenses/why-not-lgpl.html and I paraphrase:
> "We should not listen to these temptations [for weaker copyleft than
> the GPL] because we can achieve much more if we stand together. We
> free software developers should support one another. By releasing
> [fonts] that are limited to [full source code redistribution] only, we
> can help each other's [fonts] outdo the proprietary alternatives. The
> whole free software movement will have more popularity, because free
> software as a whole will stack up better against the competition."

Why be so fundamentalist in the case of fonts? -  in many ways shouldn't fonts 
be considered more akin to graphics or even music than to executable programs?

1) The *significant* "source code" of a font is accessible or easily extractable 
from the font file itself.

2) Unlike other software most fonts are perfectly functional for years and years 
without modification. I can use the original Adobe Type 1 fonts or URW Type 1 
fonts from years ago on a modern system with no loss of functionality. 
Realistically in the overwhelming majority of cases users will never want to 
modify a font. So in practical terms there are probably few real world cases 
where use of a font released with full source code redistribution  has any 
practical or useful advantage over using one released without -

3) Usually one font can be simply substituted by another without significantly 
affecting anything - except maybe aesthetically - so it is not like users can be 
  "locked into" a particular font in the same way they may be locked into 
particular software applications or operating systems unless they have access to 
the source code. [An exeption to this might be GUI or system fonts used as 
standard in Menus, dialog boxes etc. ]

4) If you are not allowed to modify a particular font - I can think of few cases 
where the font could not easily be substituted with one you can modify.

IMO for *all* these reasons the need for having full original "source code" for 
fonts is in no way compatible with the need for having source code for 
executable programs.

In order to encourage font designers to make their fonts in some way freely 
available, rather than imposing such restrictions  I think there should be an 
easy way for designers to choose from a number of licenses appropriate to fonts 
(including OFL) and select one they are comfortable with - in the same way 
Creative Commons offers different license choices for other artistic creations.

Some designers will be prepared to release fonts which may be freely distributed 
but will want to protect their designs by not allowing modifications or 
derivatives. While this may be less than ideal - I think it should be catered 
for and made easy - especially where the alternative is that the font may only 
be commercially available.

- Chris

> (Also:
> I never fail to find it surprising how transparent compiled C programs
> are to my friends
> with reverse engineer skillsets. They can modify them in a hex editor
> substantially - ie, without access to the "preferred form" of the
> source - and add new features.
> I learned the basics of defeating copy restriction mechanisms when I
> was like 15 from print outs of Fravia's pages (no internet access at
> home, hah!) A large reason why I and Fravia didn't carry on, and why
> reverse engineering has stayed obscure, is that there is so much
> "preferred form" for free programs lying around since the late 1990s.
> Similarly, the big advances in tools - IDA and UndoDB especially - are
> yet to have free replacements, since they are less necessary when you
> have source. But if there had never been a GNU project, its likely
> that those skills would be far more widespread and the tools a lot
> sharper.
> However, they would never be as sharp as George's "japanese steel"
> 'forge, for the reasons we agree on above :-)
>> I have never seen an interpretation of any free software license that
>> says that independent "scaffolding" such as build scripts have to be
>> released.  That's never been the intent, and I don't think such an
>> interpretation would hold up.
> "scripts used to control compilation" sounds like 'independent'
> scaffolding such as build scripts to me :-)
> Here is the full relevant text from the GPL:
> "The source code for a work means the preferred form of the
> work for making modifications to it. For an executable work,
> complete source code means all the source code for all
> modules it contains, plus any associated interface definition files,
> _plus_the_scripts_used_to_control_*compilation*_
> _and_installation_of_the_executable_."
> -- http://www.gnu.org/licenses/old-licenses/gpl-2.0.html (1991)

Are fonts  independent "executable works" or just collections of data in
publicly documented formats (pfb, ttf, otf) supplied to an executable (the
rendering engine)?

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