March 29, 2007

Checking out the new Open Font Library

Author: Bruce Byfield

The Open Font Library (OFL) is an offshoot of the Open Clip Art Library (OCAL) and Inkscape. Just beginning to get underway, its creation reflects the growing demand for fonts released under a free license, as well as the emergence of a free font community of designers in the last year and a half.

Jon Phillips, a community developer at Creative Commons who helps coordinate the OFL, says that at first he was reluctant to create the new site. "It's really easy to get out of control and do a lot of different projects, which is not good for the community," he says. Originally, he preferred to focus on ensuring that OCAL thrives, but community demand and the emergence of several volunteers for OFL made him change his mind.

Phillips notes that sites like OFL and OCAL attract a community that is different from that of a free and open source software (FOSS) project. Where most FOSS projects are oriented chiefly toward developers and perhaps end-users, sites based on free artwork and typefaces require a number of different roles. To start with, they are based on uploads from contributors, who may or may not be the original designers. Librarians are required to catalogue contributions and check for copyright violations -- which are must easier than with source code -- while other community members contribute by reviewing and tagging contributions. Since OCAL averages close to a hundred uploads a day, the effort involved can be considerable.

Newly launched, OFL is far less active than OCAL. However, free fonts create issues of their own, especially since the concept has only recently gained popularity. Phillips notes that what can be copyrighted in a typeface -- basically, the files, but not the design -- is not well understood. He also reports debates in the community over whether a typeface should be licensed as a whole, or as a clipart collection of individual characters. In addition, since many designers wish to support a wide variety of Unicode characters for philosophical reasons, some free typeface files are becoming much larger than the average piece of clipart.

Probably the largest problem, according to Phillips, is the choice of licenses. For now, most uploads to OFL are in the public domain, but the project is exploring other alternatives. The Creative Commons License, which Phillips favors himself, since it is already translated into multiple languages, and popular free software licenses such as the GNU General Public License, do not cover many of the issues raised by free typefaces. In particular, many typographers view themselves as artists, and wish some control over their original work even as they offer their designs to the public. Compared to software developers, Phillips says, "Font developers are more protective of their source."

To address these issues, the OFL is likely to standardize on the SIL Open Font License, which is approved by the Free Software Foundation and is designed to address the issues of concern to typographers. Currently, however, the sites' back end, which runs on CcHost, automatically lists all contributions as public domain. Despite this default, at least one contributor is announcing that his uploads are licensed under the Open Font License, and more are likely to follow. "It's all about whether people really want that, and what will bring more font developers to the site," Phillips says.

The site is new -- so new that results for its recently completed contest for a logo have yet to be announced -- but its repository of free fonts is already reasonably extensive. To date, the OFL includes 26 fonts, most of them uploaded by the same few contributors. The exact suitability of each font is hard to read from the site, although Phillips suggests that tagging will eventually take of that problem.

So far, typefaces suitable for bodies of text are a minority, although two classical fonts, Tuers' Cardboard and Hopfer Hornbook, are available, as well as two calligraphic typefaces called Pierce and Ink Calligraphy. Some basic titling fonts are also posted, including Tuffy, Let's Trace, Angular, and Pugsley, which is based on Victorian signage. Dingbats (typefaces of small graphics rather than characters) are represented by Rat Paws and a work in progress called Animal Silhouettes, as well as a complete collection of block capitals based on the Alphabet of Children by Hans Holbein the Younger.

However, the largest number of uploads fall into the decorative or novelty categories -- fonts useful for short blocks of text used with graphics. They include Fold, in which the letters resemble origami; The Art of Illuminating, whose letters resemble a medieval manuscript's; and the stencil-like !Crass Roots OFL.

Several well-known free typefaces, such as Gentium and Linux Libertine, are not yet uploaded, so there is obviously still room for the site to grow.

The site also includes a Remix page for derivatives of other contributions, although so far it is only lightly used.

Up until the last few years, typefaces were a neglected aspect in FOSS. However, the increased popularity of the GNU/Linux desktop and the emergence of software for designers is changing that. "The whole vectorization of the desktop with Inkscape is really doing a beautification of the desktop," Phillips says. In such an atmosphere, the OFL looks like an idea whose time has come.

Bruce Byfield is a computer journalist who writes regularly for NewsForge, Linux.com, and IT Manager's Journal.

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