Type Design and Open Source

Trying to figure out who shares their source files in the type design community — and why they do that

August 4, 2023

Open source software is a kind of software which can be modified and then used in other projects without infringing the owner’s copyright. This can be anything: a script, a plugin, an app, even a font.

The fact that most foundries won’t let modify their fonts and suggest approaching the author for missing or alternative glyphs did not stop the open source culture from manifesting itself in the type community, too.

Is open source anything new?

It is not, open source software dates as far back as the late 1990s, and the first ever open-source font library was created back in 2009.

Open source fonts from the League of Movable Type collection

How do I know that a typeface is an open source font?

This has to be stipulated in the license. There are a number of open source license options developed within the Open Source Initiative — all those allow to change the font’s outlines and distribute it under a new name, although they can put certain limits, such as a requirement to always indicate the copyright holder of the source file. Obviously, each author is entitled to modify a license for their font, yet the Open Source Initiative has its standards.

For instance, an open source license has to be the same for any user (i.e. it can’t be redrafted for a particular case), plus it has no control over the context in which a redesigned font is used (meaning you can’t deny someone their right to use your open source file or its modified versions in a racist or homophobic project).

What is this Open Source Initiative? What do I risk if I violate its requirements?

It’s an organisation that promotes the open source culture, giving grants to open source developers and representing them in court as well as developing open source license templates. The provisions of this initiative is a certain consensus on what defines open source. If your font’s license does not meet all the requirements of the organisation, you only risk a probable dissatisfaction of the community. However, if you plan to compose a license from scratch or to combine several templates, you’d better show it to a lawyer.

Do you happen to have any recommendation on where to look for open source fonts?

There are lots of independent foundries and platforms that design and distribute open source fonts; Berlin-based designer Frederic Brodbeck is putting together a list of those (this compilation includes, for example, a Greek script font and a Kanji font!).

1 Gotico-Antiqua created during a workshop at Atelier National de Recherche Typographique

11 Typefaces by Etcetera Type Company

2 Smiley Sans by Anchor Type

But certain corporations release open source fonts as well — Adobe authorises the modification of some fonts in their collection, and Google permits to introduce changes to any Google Fonts typeface.

3 Lato by Adam Twardoch, Botio Nikoltchev, and Łukasz Dziedzic (Adobe)

35 Hershey Noaille typefaces

Why do corporations release open source fonts, too?

This helps them test new technologies. For example, Adobe released their first open source library in order to find out the attitude of users towards variable fonts. Dave Crossland, operation director for Google Fonts, believes that open source fonts ‘provide better support for more languages’ (meaning the users are given the opportunity to add missing glyphs or even alphabets). Microsoft also perceives open source as a way to promote inclusion: you can change their emojis by introducing new skin tone shades.

5 Microsoft emoji editing process

So, they do that to make users do their job for free, don’t they?

Not really. The open source development culture doesn’t assume creating something free, in the first place, but rather a chance to collaborate and redistribute resources — if you already have a part of the code, you can dedicate your time and efforts to something new.

There have been many allegations that Google just decided to enrich its library through the efforts of inexperienced designers instead of launching a new open source platform. In an attempt to respond to criticism, Google Fonts put together a team of professional type designers and offered them to contact the authors of fonts from the library to join efforts to improve them. Now most typefaces that appear on Google Fonts are either created by professional designers or have been moderated by the Google team (apparently, this does not guarantee that the entire library is flawless, and yet our Cyrillic Google Fonts reviews feature some decent and versatile fonts).

6 Pacifico designed by Vernon Adams and upgraded by Jacques Le Bailly

And what about font editors? Are there any open source font editors?

Yes. There is just one — Font Forge, and it is not really popular. Most scripts and extensions for Glyphs and Robofont have open source code. Anyone can add their own extension on GitHub, but the projects do not appear on the editors’ websites unless they get verified.

If I release a free typeface, should I make it an open source font?

Not necessarily, it all comes down to your goal. If you intend to release a font for free, collect feedback, finalise the font and start selling it, you’d better not authorise modifying a font file (because in that case when your font is ready, it will already have a number of analogues, making you lose some part of potential buyers). However, if the goal is to turn your typeface into a super family supporting several scripts, open source might be just the right solution for you. For example, Google Fonts was able to extend Noto, which currently supports over 150 scripts, precisely due to the fact that the font was being distributed under an open source license.