Web fonts on the horizon

At @media London this year, Opera’s CTO Håkon Wium Lie intimated that the forthcoming release of Opera will support downloadable fonts, or ‘web fonts’ in the W3C’s parlance. He reinforced this in an article published on CNET.

Web fonts were introduced in CSS2 in 1998. They then disappeared from CSS 2.1 and reappeared in the CSS3 Web Fonts module, where they have languished as a last call working draft since 2002. The CSS for web fonts is simple: specify a URL for the font to be downloaded using the font-face construct:

@font-face {
  font-family: "Robson Celtic";
  src: url("http://site/fonts/rob-celt")

And add the font to your font-family in the normal way:

h1 {
  font-family: "Robson Celtic", serif

The big question though, is what file should be downloaded? Opera is not the first browser to support web fonts. Internet Explorers 4–6 did so, as did Netscape 4. However IE and Netscape only supported proprietary formats, for example IE required authors to use its free WEFT software to create an embedded OpenType file.

The plan appears to be for Opera to support standard TrueType files of the type already installed on our machines (one hopes that implies OpenType files as well). I can feel the type foundries quaking in their boots.

CSS 3 specifies that downloaded fonts should not be made available to other software – in other words they are kept in a browser cache and not installed on the user’s system. We can probably assume Opera will respect this, but as things stand it still leaves the door open for far easier font piracy; after-all the CSS files say “Hey look here’s the URL of a font file you could steal”. That said, I really hope Opera pull it off and other browsers follow suit.

If Opera does go ahead and implement TrueType downloadable fonts, it will serve to highlight how font publishers have been burying their heads in the sand over the past decade. What they should have been working on is a web service for enabling downloadable fonts. Why not have the CSS link to a font file on the publisher’s server, which send the font file only to a registered domain name. To help scupper the downloading problem, the font file itself could be encoded so as only to work in a browser on a certain domain name. This does sound like a form of DRM, but if you think of it from the point of view of the publishers renting out the font instead of selling it, where’s the harm? It would be the same principle as registering to use Google Maps.

So instead of working with browser manufacturers on creating a standard for a web service which could protect and potentially increase their incomes, the font publishers appear to have shot themselves in the foot through their own inaction, and now face the possibility of even more piracy.

Update. I’ve tried to clarify my points in the comments, particularly regarding what could have happened with fonts as a web service.