The Questionable Legality Of Web Fonts

Font options for webdesigners are increasing these days. There’s the imminent release of Firefox 3.5, which hails the arrival of embeddable fonts of your choice. There’s Typekit, a tool to ease the addition of the former (and some more). There’s sIFR, the so-far most adopted choice, and there’s also Cufon, a novel approach to the subject.

Common to all of these methods, however, is the question of legality. Whenever we choose a font which is not in the base Arial/Times New Roman pack, we’re probably using a font which does not explicitly allow embedding on the web.

In essence, when you’re using embeddable fonts, you distribute the precious font vectors across the silver streams of the interverse, freely and therefore copyable. Meaning; the type foundry responsible for your chosen font is unlikely to agree with you, that you absolutely must use Dax Wide for your new corporate website. Because if you do, every visitor to your website will have downloaded a copy of the font.

In fairness, I have yet to see a useful font file be extracted from the Flash files generated for use with sIFR, which is probably the primary reason for its widespread use and popularity. Reading about Cufon, I suspect the same holds true for that technology (please correct me if I’m wrong).

So what options remain, now that in the next few months we’ll finally be able to expand our type-base? Aside from the continued use of sIFR and Cufon, we have two options:

  • Use a font which specifically allows for @font-face embedding (here’s a list)
  • Use Typekit, which — I’m told — will work with type foundries to provide classy fonts for your typical needs

These are not bad options, especially because we’re mainly talking body-text here (again, you can use sIFR or Cufon for headlines). More interestingly, however, is the prospect now that the technology is (almost) there. I find it quite likely that we’ll see buckloads of amateurs giving away their spare-time font projects for free under liberal licenses. Some of these fonts are quite good, some of them, like Arial, are just cheap knockoffs of their better-looking counterparts. Nonetheless, an avenue for a sky-rocket trip to font-hall-of-fame will have have opened up, and you and I will reap the benefits.

9 thoughts on “The Questionable Legality Of Web Fonts”

  1. Luke Dorny says:

    Excellent quick analysis of the current state of fonts on the web and in webdesign.

    There have been quite a few things pop up recently, even today about some foundries creating or editing their EULA to allow embedding on some level. Seen on twitter.

    On the other hand, there are fonts that can debatably be used on the web with the methods you mention.

    Check here for free fonts for your website, a site i just found in the last month:

    No affiliate, but the site does have some nice fonts that you could use right now.

    Crossing fingers that more foundries will get together with efforts like TypeKit to create more options for webdesigners … and their junior counterparts who’d like to use more than 10 fonts on a page for some reason.

    1. Joen says:

      I can see type foundries releasing fonts even outside of typekit.

      One emerging trend, I have noticed, is to give away the “regular” weight for free, and have people pay for light, heavy, wide, thin and so on. I can see this trend move on to embedding. The font is made popular because it’s seen on your favourite website, after which you simply have to buy the full family.

      If I was a type foundry, I’d do it.

      Edit: Oh by the way, excellent link, thanks!

  2. Gareth says:

    Very timely article, i have just implemented sIFR into my site. The only real drawback of sIFR is you can`t really use it for body text. Cufon looks interesting but from the demo’s is seems you can`t select the text, but the render does look cleaner than siFR. Typekit i don`t really understand.

    Unfortunately browser supported font embedding will take many years to take off (if at all?) as they will all have to march to the same tune and we will have to somehow support old browsers. Sigh, how i wish all browsers auto updated like chrome.

    1. Joen says:

      I don’t think browser embedding is actually that far off.

      The support for @font-face is there in:

      • Opera
      • Safari
      • Chrome
      • Firefox 3.5 and above

      and, for IE6-IE8, we can fall back on a solution they’ve had since IE4, which requires the creation of an “EOT” font file.

      The point is, today, you could embed font files that up to 78% of websurfers could see, the 22% being Firefox 3 and older.

    2. Joen: I don’t think browser embedding is actually that far off.The support for @font-face is there in:


      Opera doesn’t implement @font-face that well in their (Opera 10b1/Presto 2.2) browser only the regular font (so no bold/italic/small-caps) is supported and only at small sizes are glyphs rendered properly. Also, italic becomes (a fugly) bold when you use @font-face in Opera. It’s rather disappointing.

      I’ve been using @font-face in a (css3) project you’ll soon see more of. The css is heavily commented, and I’ll most likely turn some of those comments into articles.

    3. Joen says:

      James John Malcolm: I’ve been using @font-face in a (css3) project you’ll soon see more of. The css is heavily commented, and I’ll most likely turn some of those comments into articles.

      Interesting. Keep me posted on your project!

    4. On a more positive note, you can get @font-face’d fonts to look excellent in Gecko 1.9.1 (Firefox 3.5) and Webkit (Safari/Chrome).

      The best bit is using a nice small-caps variant for [code] tags..makes it look much nicer!

      Will keep you posted.

    5. Joen says:


      Oh and while I am all for Opera, its marketshare is relatively small (that’s one thing), and usually its update mechanism is rather good. Plus, Opera is usually fast to “fix” things.

      So I doubt we’ll have to worry about Opera for long.

  3. Gareth says:

    I Had not realised support was that widespread.. although i don`t think i have ever seen a site that has any font embedding (apart from type foundries) !

    It looks like firefox has been dragging their feet on this one.

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