Bram de Does (1934–2015) designed two typefaces for the Enschedé Font Foundry, Trinité and Lexicon. The more recent of the two, Lexicon, comes in six weights of roman and italic and, unusually, each style has two forms, each with different stem lengths for the lowercase ascenders and descenders. Trinité – shown in the illustration below – has three forms, hence its name. The capsule biography of the designer on Enschedé’s website describes Lexicon as having ‘all the virtues to become a new Times New Roman.’ All but one perhaps. Times is bundled with many computer operating systems and apps, and its cost in licensing fees is part of the price one pays for the software, so appears to be practically free-of-charge. A licence for each style of each weight of Lexicon or Trinité is priced, for one user on one computer, at £ 320 plus taxes. Most work one would use a typeface like this for would require, at a minimum, a roman and an italic, so double that. If one wished to take advantage of the opportunities offered by the alternate stem lengths, which would seem to be one of the reasons for using it, double again, and think hard about the need for a bold font.
It’s unlikely that Lexicon will ever earn for Enschedé anything that comes close to what Times has accrued for Monotype over the past 91 years. Enschedé is sticking to a version of the pre-digital model of licensing. Rather than competing in the increasingly crowded marketplace for digital fonts, the company has decided to carry on doing business much as it did when it sold metal type and matrices at a relatively high price to a discerning (and well-heeled) clientele.
Although Enschedé’s fonts are expensive, they are at least consistently so. Other foundries lower prices often seem quixotic. The bundle of five fonts comprising Bembo Book, released by Monotype in 2005, goes for £190, so about £38 per font. From the same foundry, for just £10 more, you can get the complete set of their excellent 2018 version of Walbaum. In a range of weights over five optical sizes from 6 point to 96 point, including decorative versions and ornaments, the bundle is comprised of 68 fonts: at £2.95 per font, less than 10% of the cost of Bembo. Although these typefaces are suitable for quite different contexts, and Bembo is certainly more suitable for most bookwork, the difference is stark.
One thing that practically all digital fonts have in common, be they pricey or free, is that rather than being sold as products which one can do with what one will, they are issued under licences which lay out what is and what is not allowed.
When one buys a licence for a font one is generally restricted in certain ways, usually by context (if it is to be used in print, for a web site, or in an app), number of users and number of computers it can be installed on, and whether one may alter the font software. But it’s worth reading the licence to check for other wrinkles. Some foundries have terms more common in licensing images, with a cap on the number of instances of a product that may be made if it includes their fonts.
This has been the main method of selling type since the advent of digital typesetting, particularly for print, where one pays once for however many users / computers one wishes to have licences for. A disadvantage of this method is that unlike a lot of software, font licences generally don’t come with upgrades. The version available at the time of licensing is the version one has access to. Should an improved version come along – say, in a new format, or with more glyphs and supported languages – one would have to pay for the new version to use the new features. This might soon become an expensive problem for a few people. New versions of graphic arts apps are starting to deprecate older digital font formats, and some people with ageing libraries of digital fonts licensed from the 1980s to the 2000s might soon find that their fonts no longer work.
Software of all types is increasingly being sold as a subscription service, and fonts are no exception. Users of Adobe’s Creative Cloud products get access to the large Adobe Fonts catalogue – until one stops paying the subscription fee of course. Adobe’s library includes not just Adobe fonts, but those of numerous other foundries. This leads to the problem of vanishing content familiar to users of streaming TV services. Occasionally a foundry will withdraw their fonts from the library: troublesome for those of us who have had fonts disappear in the middle of a project.
Fontstand, a distributor for several foundries, offer a service much like some car financing. You can rent a font by the month for 10% of its retail cost, and if you continue to pay for a full year, receive a perpetual licence. Also, much like test driving in the car business, you can take a font for a three-hour spin before you commit to paying for it.
Open source fonts
Open source fonts turn up in a variety of places, but Google Fonts is probably the largest single repository. Until recently Google’s FAQ about how one may use them amounted to two unhelpful sentences. The first described a general freedom:
You can use these fonts freely in your products & projects – print or digital, commercial or otherwise.
The second sentence, while short of being a contradiction, certainly undercut the first proposition:
This isn’t legal advice, please consider consulting a lawyer and see the full license for all details.
Again, reading the licence is undoubtedly sensible, but my guess is that if one can afford to consult a lawyer versed in intellectual property in the software industry, one can afford to go shopping at Enschedé. The latest version of the FAQ is more straightforwardly permissive, and suggests that now Google will only be adding fonts issued under the SIL Open Font License to their library.
Digital fonts are among the softest targets for software piracy, but the increased adoption of open source fonts and subscription services has probably ameliorated the situation a bit. Google Fonts now includes more than 1400 font families, and Adobe’s library almost twice as many, albeit with some overlap. But this is a cornucopia of type which obviates the temptation of thievery. A side effect of this abundance is that smaller foundries have had to make a clear proposition that their type is as good as or better than the excellent fonts available for free or as part of a subscription, and have upped their game accordingly. Not only are there more fonts, but better ones too. There will always be digital packrats who will stash anything they can lay their hands on, but most of us are happier paying for what we know we like, and living without the tyranny of choice – an unmanageably long font menu – that such nefarious hoarding engenders.
The most reliable way of owning a digital font, rather than getting a licence to use it in a particular way, is to get someone to make it for you, or make it yourself. For most individuals and small companies, this is forbiddingly expensive, either in money or time. For big organisations, particularly media companies, it can be something of a bargain. If your product is used by millions of people, an outlay in tens, or even hundreds of thousands for a house typeface might soon save you millions in licensing fees.
But even with a bespoke font, ownership can be complicated. When writing about the prodigiously talented musician Prince, in discussing his career between 7 June 1993 and 13 May 2000, rather than use the acronym TAFKAP
¶ Notes. In May 2021 Adobe announced that as of January 2023 their apps would no longer support PostScript Type 1 fonts. ¶ Sources. ‘You Wouldn’t Think It, But Typeface Piracy Is a Big Problem’ by Steven Heller (Wired, 21 October 2015).