“Embedded” Web Fonts Return. Uh-oh.

Written by Stephen Coles on October 4, 2007

The web is about to become more beautiful/hideous. Dave Hyatt of the WebKit engine used by Safari:

WebKit now supports CSS @font-face rules. With font face rules you can specify downloadable custom fonts on your Web pages or alias one font to another. This article on A List Apart describes the feature in detail. All of the examples linked to in that article work in WebKit now.

For the uninitiated, this means any TrueType font can be called by a style sheet and then downloaded by the web browser. This reopens the legal can of worms that falls off the shelf every time we talk about font embedding. Good fonts cost money. Like most software, each user or CPU must be licensed to use a commercial font. When you start talking about every visitor of a web page downloading the font — well — you enter very sticky territory indeed. Each foundry has their own end-user license agreement, and many of these EULAs mention embedding in general, but the font industry hasn’t specifically addressed the issue of CSS @font-face rules. It’s a tiny, toothless industry and, as usual, they are a step behind.

So, due to the professional type designer’s understandable desire to be paid for their work, most websites that will take advantage of this new technology will use free fonts. Cue the foreboding horror music.

In general, web designers aren’t typographers. Their specialty is in the realms of interface, hierarchy, and navigation. Their training does not include making decisions about what typeface to use for long passages of text. This is not so much an issue today, where HTML text is limited to screen-optimized fonts crafted by experienced type designers. But now web designers have a sea of crummy fonts to choose from. I’m afraid this does not bode well for readability and aesthetics on the web.

Update — John Gruber, via email, succinctly describes the dilemma:

The fonts you’re allowed to embed legally aren’t worth using; the fonts that are worth using aren’t embeddable.

Update: May 3, 2010 — Lots of stuff has gone down.

See also: Initial Discussion at Typophile : Typophile Webfonts Discussion in 2009–10