The future of web font embedding

Firstly, let me define web font embedding, or so-called web fonts, as I see it. I mean using @font-face to point to regular TrueType or OpenType font files on a web server. In terms of support, the current state of affairs is such that Safari 3.1 supports web fonts, it is scheduled for Firefox 3.1 and it is currently available in a development release of Opera.

It’s true to say that Internet Explorer has supported web fonts since version 4, but only by way of EOT files which are currently proprietary. It’s true that Microsoft is trying to get the W3C to make EOT a standard, but EOT is a form of DRM requiring pre-processing of regular fonts and as such is not acceptable to me, despite Bill Hill’s protestations (the condescending tone and content of which not unreasonably got the Joe Clark treatment).

So. The current state of affairs is that about 3% of browsers currently support web fonts (as I define them), a figure which is due to rise to about 30% probably later this year. This means, to me, that web fonts are not the future, they are the here-and-now, especially if your business is typefaces.

On that basis, it’s high time that font foundries and type designers stopped waving their hands in the air proclaiming the death of their industry, insisting that everyone will be pirating their fonts and installing them for free. Instead they should see this as an opportunity to be grabbed with both hands.

Before I explain how, let’s get a couple of facts straight. Firstly, web font embedding doesn’t install the font on the operating system. The Web Fonts spec has always specified that “downloaded fonts should not be made available to other applications.” So the font exists only within the browser.

Secondly, designers do not necessarily have to upload the font file to their own web server. They can link to a font file on another server. And this is where the real opportunity lies.

When you embed a Google map on your web page, you don’t download a bunch of map images from Google and stick them on your server, you link to Google which then serves up the maps to registered domains. The same approach can be applied to fonts. Font foundries could license their fonts for embedding and serve those fonts only to registered websites, using their own hosted system or via a trusted third party.

This way foundries can provide designers and their readers with a legal way of embedding fonts, removing the need for uploading font files to multiple web servers, and of course make some extra income in the process. Think about it – foundries can sell their fonts twice this way – once to the designer and again to the readers†.

Font embedding won’t increase piracy of fonts – there’s plenty of that already happening via email, BitTorrent and any other Internet vessel you care to think of. Professional designers and reputable clients will continue to license fonts as they always have done. There is no point trying to fight font embedding – that horse has bolted – it’s already happening. So why think of your customers as potential criminals, when instead you could gain control over the situation and make more money from your fonts?

†Update: a clarification and a pricing model

I wouldn’t expect any website visitors to pay for an embedded font. However if designers want their customers to read a certain font then they could be willing to pay for it. So I’m expecting designers (or more likely their clients) to pay for the font embedding on behalf of their readers.

At the moment, fonts are sold on a per-machine basis – a single payment allows perpetual use. But given that the font embedding mechanism I’m proposing is a web service, a monthly payment model could be more appropriate. By way of example, let’s pick a $199 font and divide that figure across two years. That makes about $8 per month, which would seem fairly enticing for something as lovely as say, Archer. And there’s the ‘freemium’ model to think about which might mean you could get the book weight for free, but other weights and italics are paid for. Food for thought, surely?


The venerable “John Allsopp”: has added to the call for a Fonts as a Service in his extremely well thought out article Ubiquitous web font embedding just got a step closer. John also states the case against EOT as a method of tying intellectual property to a data format, adding this gem:

In the decade or more since font linking was first available in browsers, just how much fscking money have foundries left on the table? I speculate that the answer is billions of dollars.
So, my humble suggestion to foundries is – you’ve had ten years in which the only way in which font linking was available was in such a way as it protected your rights. How’s that been working for you? In the last 10 years, the number of professionals in graphic design (if we include web design in that category) would have grown by orders of magnitudes. And so logically, should have your revenues from fonts. I suspect they haven’t.