July 11, 2006 4:00 AM PDT

Open source casts new mold for type design

The open-source approach, born in the field of programming, is catching on in a new area: type design.

In 2003, type design company Bitstream, in conjunction with the GNOME Foundation, released a font family called Vera for open-source use. Under the license terms, anyone was permitted to make new fonts based on Vera, as long as the derivatives were given a different name.

Now, with Vera essentially dormant, an international group has picked up work on an offshoot called DejaVu. There are other Vera derivatives, such as Erav. But DejaVu has caught on widely enough for it to be the default font for Dapper Drake, the latest update to Ubuntu Linux. It may also become the default font for Red Hat's Fedora version of Linux.

"DejaVu, from purely a user perspective, seems to be the one that has the momentum and benefits behind it," said Rahul Sundaram, one of nine board members for the Fedora Project, which governs the Linux version.

Fonts--letters and other characters that range in appearance from utilitarian to highly ornamental--are usually proprietary designs from companies called foundries. That proprietary nature doesn't jibe with open-source principles--a mismatch made glaring by the widespread use of Microsoft fonts on Linux.

But having practical and pleasing fonts for Linux is important, particularly as programmers work to improve GNOME and other graphical software to make the open-source operating system a better alternative to Windows.

DejaVu The "scratch-your-own-itch" motive that drives much development of open-source software lay behind the DejaVu project. Specifically, the itch was that Vera didn't have needed support for international characters. The DejaVu font is updated monthly with new and improved characters for displaying Chinese, Cyrillic, Vietnamese, Braille, Greek, Arabic, Uzbekian and other languages. Many characters added to DejaVu have come from other Vera offshoots.

"I think it's a simple demonstration of the power of open source," RedMonk analyst Stephen O'Grady said. Typeface design may not be the same as programming, but when it comes to the collaborative approach, "the principles are the same," he added.

The open-source philosophy has at its heart ideas such as collaboration, and the freedom to modify and redistribute an original project. It's extending beyond software, though. Some have applied the idea to politics, where independent individuals create their own advertisements instead of waiting for established campaigns to do so. And Sun Microsystems has applied it to hardware: Its UltraSparc T1 "Niagara" processor design is governed by the granddaddy of free and open-source licenses, the General Public License (GPL).

Put a fork in it
Credit for launching DejaVu goes to Štepán Roh, said Nicolas Mailhot, who oversees DejaVu integration into the Fedora Extras package of add-on software. Roh helped consolidate a fragmented font design effort into what became DejaVu, Mailhot said.

Vera generated initial excitement, especially over its glyphs, or typographical characters. "The glyph quality was vastly superior to those of other FLOSS (free/libre/open-source software) font offerings at the time," Mailhot said. "Also, Bitstream released a full font set, including sans-serif, serif and monospace styles."

Roh said he started the project in March 2004. "The only TrueType fonts I had were Bitstream Vera. But they were lacking certain glyphs needed for the Czech language, so I decided to add them by myself," he said.

CONTINUED: A fork in the road…
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9 comments

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The pitfalls of DejaVu
"Though he had almost no experience in type design"... this set off alarm bells for me, as this is one of the major problems with Open Source fonts! Designing good fonts, especially a system-level font, is not a task to be taken likely. Who are the people creating these Open Source fonts and are they adhering to proper design and legal principles? From a design perpective, is everyone following similar type design approaches to creating characters/glyphs that are consistent and work well together? (highly unlikely!) Or are they copying existing font data (which is illegal) and thus polluting or putting the Open Source fonts (and anyone who uses them) at risk? While I believe the goals are honorable, who is monitoring and checking and supervising these efforts? The reason Vera was welcomed by the community is because a professional type foundry (Bitstream) was compensated by GNOME to produce the font. No wonder Bitstream doesn't want their name associated with Deja Vu - because they can't take responsibility any more for the quality of the font or the legal indemnification of the additional characters. This could be the main reasons why the proposal to include Deja Vu in the next version of Fedora may not happen, despite the good intentions by Roh and others.
Posted by fontdude (2 comments )
Reply Link Flag
And your complaint is?
I'll state outright that my understanding of font development is limited to seeing it done by others but I gotta ask, does wonderfully wordy and completely unformated complaint (grammer and fonts not closely related huh?) basically boil down to problems with a font being made without a proffessional fontdude getting paid?

It seems the first thing to set off alarm bells was the prospect of someone uncertified and unbonded in font design learning how a humble civilian might go about such a thing. With my limited 20 years of power-computing experience I'd guess that a system level font has to be fully tested with the system to insure that it meets all functional and legal requirnments; that would be the job of the system designer's team wouldn't it? I certainly hope everyone is not following the same design approach as I'm sure there are many different ways to reach the same goal and again; the job of keeping all fonts in a collection working well together would be that of the person consolidating multiple fonts into a single collection. As for copying existing font data, if it's license stipulates that it may be copied then where exacly is the law being broken? Propriatery fonts are absolutely limited by whatever license the "foundry" has written for them but it would seem in the article that all fonts included into the DejaVu collection where approved by the original artist/owner. Again, monitoring would be kinda like bug hunting I bet; the package disigner or distribution implementing use of the package would have an interest in confirming that the fonts are all legal and good to work at system level or with other fonts in the distribution.

"because a professional type foundry (Bitstream) was compensated" - The danger is believing the Microsoft marketing stating that anything not produced by a brand or big name vendor is no good. I expect Bitstream's reasons for not associating with DejaVu are that it's not there direct product so legally, financially and ethically it's out of there hands. Perhaps they could review and consult on the further development but DejaVu is something being developed further out of the core of previous art. Kinda make's it fit nicely under this whole freedom to inovate open source world. Your not going to take responsability for what your neibour does in there own home anymore than a business is going to take responsability (unless it's a patent business of course) for what there neibour is doing; that is just plain responsible behaviour. Sure, if your neibour is going to harm themselve building a life sized rocket in there back yard, you may want to inquire but don't tell me that your neibour is wrong because they have a different way of washing dishes than you do.

As for including DejaVu in Fedora; (three times a charm?) that would be the job of the Fedora distribution team to discuss the pros/cons and confirm that the art is (code, font or pretty pictures) is vetted for inclusion based on legal and functional requirnments. I for one hope they do include it based on the fact that it does cover a wide veriety of language sets. I'd even like to see someone add cuniform and aramaic characters just for fun. This would be along the same lines as RedHat's install program offering the option of Redneck english as a way to make the install process more entertaining.

You do make some valid points of consideration but it may have been better to provide them as possitive inquiries rather than points of attack; unless you really are a font guru who's screaming cause all these uncertified developers are jumping on your poor little toezy-woezies.
Posted by jabbotts (492 comments )
Link Flag
Huh?
"Designing good fonts, especially a system-level font, is not a task to be taken likely[sic]."

Neither is designing an operating system kernel, which is far more complex and demanding (and yet, I'm using an open source OS kernel to facilitate typing this very response...)

" Who are the people creating these Open Source fonts and are they adhering to proper design and legal principles?"

Not different from writing software, either - a given OSS font will stand or fall on its merits, and just like software, ripping off another's copyright is a no-no. When it comes to legal ramifications of contributing to an OSS project, we've been there before, done that before.

As for quality? May the best font win. Just like software quality. Remember - the world can see what you do, so lack of quality in either arena is liable to get you laughed at (unlike closed shops where sloppy work can and often does slip through - though it'll be far easier to detect a sloppy font than a sloppy bit of code).

Sorry 'mano, but fonts are rather easier to create than an operating system (or even a moderately useful software app), and those who know how are just as likely to be aware of legalities (which incidentally vary from nation to nation) as coders are of theirs.
Posted by Penguinisto (5042 comments )
Link Flag
Really?
"'Though he had almost no experience in type design'... this set off alarm bells for me"

Why? Wouldn't it be more reasonable to judge people's work by looking at the quality of the work rather than checking how much previous experience they have. Do you have any complaints about the actual quality of the Dejavu fonts?

"Designing good fonts, especially a system-level font, is not a task to be taken likely."

Do you have any reason to believe that the Dejavu people are taking their task lightly?

"Who are the people creating these Open Source fonts"

Their mailing lists are public. You could ask there.

"are they adhering to proper design and legal principles?"

Yes. Do you have any reason to believe otherwise?

"From a design perpective, is everyone following similar type design approaches to creating characters/glyphs that are consistent and work well together?"

Yes. Do you have any reason to believe otherwise?

"Or are they copying existing font data"

No (at least not unless they have permission). Why would they do that?

"who is monitoring and checking and supervising these efforts?"

The development is done in public, so anyone can monitor it.

"No wonder Bitstream doesn't want their name associated with Deja Vu"

That's how trademarks work. It's not unique to Dejavu and it's not unique to Bitstream Vera. If you download Firefox and change one line of code, you are no longer allowed to call it Firefox.
Posted by Hardrada (359 comments )
Link Flag
The pitfalls of DejaVu
"Though he had almost no experience in type design"... this set off alarm bells for me, as this is one of the major problems with Open Source fonts! Designing good fonts, especially a system-level font, is not a task to be taken likely. Who are the people creating these Open Source fonts and are they adhering to proper design and legal principles? From a design perpective, is everyone following similar type design approaches to creating characters/glyphs that are consistent and work well together? (highly unlikely!) Or are they copying existing font data (which is illegal) and thus polluting or putting the Open Source fonts (and anyone who uses them) at risk? While I believe the goals are honorable, who is monitoring and checking and supervising these efforts? The reason Vera was welcomed by the community is because a professional type foundry (Bitstream) was compensated by GNOME to produce the font. No wonder Bitstream doesn't want their name associated with Deja Vu - because they can't take responsibility any more for the quality of the font or the legal indemnification of the additional characters. This could be the main reasons why the proposal to include Deja Vu in the next version of Fedora may not happen, despite the good intentions by Roh and others.
Posted by fontdude (2 comments )
Reply Link Flag
And your complaint is?
I'll state outright that my understanding of font development is limited to seeing it done by others but I gotta ask, does wonderfully wordy and completely unformated complaint (grammer and fonts not closely related huh?) basically boil down to problems with a font being made without a proffessional fontdude getting paid?

It seems the first thing to set off alarm bells was the prospect of someone uncertified and unbonded in font design learning how a humble civilian might go about such a thing. With my limited 20 years of power-computing experience I'd guess that a system level font has to be fully tested with the system to insure that it meets all functional and legal requirnments; that would be the job of the system designer's team wouldn't it? I certainly hope everyone is not following the same design approach as I'm sure there are many different ways to reach the same goal and again; the job of keeping all fonts in a collection working well together would be that of the person consolidating multiple fonts into a single collection. As for copying existing font data, if it's license stipulates that it may be copied then where exacly is the law being broken? Propriatery fonts are absolutely limited by whatever license the "foundry" has written for them but it would seem in the article that all fonts included into the DejaVu collection where approved by the original artist/owner. Again, monitoring would be kinda like bug hunting I bet; the package disigner or distribution implementing use of the package would have an interest in confirming that the fonts are all legal and good to work at system level or with other fonts in the distribution.

"because a professional type foundry (Bitstream) was compensated" - The danger is believing the Microsoft marketing stating that anything not produced by a brand or big name vendor is no good. I expect Bitstream's reasons for not associating with DejaVu are that it's not there direct product so legally, financially and ethically it's out of there hands. Perhaps they could review and consult on the further development but DejaVu is something being developed further out of the core of previous art. Kinda make's it fit nicely under this whole freedom to inovate open source world. Your not going to take responsability for what your neibour does in there own home anymore than a business is going to take responsability (unless it's a patent business of course) for what there neibour is doing; that is just plain responsible behaviour. Sure, if your neibour is going to harm themselve building a life sized rocket in there back yard, you may want to inquire but don't tell me that your neibour is wrong because they have a different way of washing dishes than you do.

As for including DejaVu in Fedora; (three times a charm?) that would be the job of the Fedora distribution team to discuss the pros/cons and confirm that the art is (code, font or pretty pictures) is vetted for inclusion based on legal and functional requirnments. I for one hope they do include it based on the fact that it does cover a wide veriety of language sets. I'd even like to see someone add cuniform and aramaic characters just for fun. This would be along the same lines as RedHat's install program offering the option of Redneck english as a way to make the install process more entertaining.

You do make some valid points of consideration but it may have been better to provide them as possitive inquiries rather than points of attack; unless you really are a font guru who's screaming cause all these uncertified developers are jumping on your poor little toezy-woezies.
Posted by jabbotts (492 comments )
Link Flag
Huh?
"Designing good fonts, especially a system-level font, is not a task to be taken likely[sic]."

Neither is designing an operating system kernel, which is far more complex and demanding (and yet, I'm using an open source OS kernel to facilitate typing this very response...)

" Who are the people creating these Open Source fonts and are they adhering to proper design and legal principles?"

Not different from writing software, either - a given OSS font will stand or fall on its merits, and just like software, ripping off another's copyright is a no-no. When it comes to legal ramifications of contributing to an OSS project, we've been there before, done that before.

As for quality? May the best font win. Just like software quality. Remember - the world can see what you do, so lack of quality in either arena is liable to get you laughed at (unlike closed shops where sloppy work can and often does slip through - though it'll be far easier to detect a sloppy font than a sloppy bit of code).

Sorry 'mano, but fonts are rather easier to create than an operating system (or even a moderately useful software app), and those who know how are just as likely to be aware of legalities (which incidentally vary from nation to nation) as coders are of theirs.
Posted by Penguinisto (5042 comments )
Link Flag
Really?
"'Though he had almost no experience in type design'... this set off alarm bells for me"

Why? Wouldn't it be more reasonable to judge people's work by looking at the quality of the work rather than checking how much previous experience they have. Do you have any complaints about the actual quality of the Dejavu fonts?

"Designing good fonts, especially a system-level font, is not a task to be taken likely."

Do you have any reason to believe that the Dejavu people are taking their task lightly?

"Who are the people creating these Open Source fonts"

Their mailing lists are public. You could ask there.

"are they adhering to proper design and legal principles?"

Yes. Do you have any reason to believe otherwise?

"From a design perpective, is everyone following similar type design approaches to creating characters/glyphs that are consistent and work well together?"

Yes. Do you have any reason to believe otherwise?

"Or are they copying existing font data"

No (at least not unless they have permission). Why would they do that?

"who is monitoring and checking and supervising these efforts?"

The development is done in public, so anyone can monitor it.

"No wonder Bitstream doesn't want their name associated with Deja Vu"

That's how trademarks work. It's not unique to Dejavu and it's not unique to Bitstream Vera. If you download Firefox and change one line of code, you are no longer allowed to call it Firefox.
Posted by Hardrada (359 comments )
Link Flag
I found the DejaVu collection installed in my Windows XP machine. I don't know if it came standard with the system, or was installed by OpenOffice. However, I found it a nice set, and the DejaVu Mono is probably the most readable font when writing in WriteRoom-like applications, like WriteMonkey or Q10. As someone involved in DTP since decades, it doesn't look to me as if they were made by an amateur designer.

Paolo
Posted by ptram (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
 

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