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The absurdity in GPLisation of Fonts.

Manik Chand Patnaik
Sun Dec 11 08:09:23 2005

When we speak out about absurdities in utilisation of OSS approved licenses, we speak-out for a large mass and which is certain to attract much attention and vehement protests from the community. So first of all I need to indicate is whether I am at all qualified to speak about such a topic. I am a Licentious Law Bachelor from a recognised University in India and also associated with the open-source movement since long. My association with KDE in particular is from a couple of years (so very recent in nature).

Font is technically a pure blend of artwork with programming. It is just like a graphical library with bits and pieces of programming involved in. Traditionally GPL has been successfully applied to software programs. The stint of GPL for graphics or re-usable libraries has been dismal. So parallel licenses for graphics and re-usable components have been made in past and currently in force too. For libraries there is LGPL (Library GPL for short). For artworks there are specific artwork licenses e.g. KDE artwork License, one from Creative Commons and numerous others. Though a GPL'ed font means that it can freely be modified and redistributed, it has far more legal implications. Just read on ...

The Problem

As long as you use them on your computer it is well and fine. The problem starts to crop-up when the distribution begins. As specified by GPL, the font can be distributed in its source form without any problems. As a commonly understood idea, no one can/should hold on his machine all the fonts available for free on earth. So generally fonts are bundled together in various forms with the document and it has become a very common and standard practice. SVG and portable document (PDF) are the common formats which are quite popular and use embedding of fonts in the document either in full or in subset for distribution to the target audience. In addition to them the most popular document formats from Microsoft, e.g. MS Word (.doc) also embeds fonts in their documents if specified by the options. The license in the font for embeddability (see Embeddable) allows for four types of embedding namely; Never Embed/No Editing, Printable Document, Editable Document, and Installable Font. Three of the four options indicated above are instrumental in distribution of the font in some form or other. As of current I have not seen Open Document Format files distributing fonts. The word-processors and spread-sheet applications have no automated process to pack the GPL'ed fonts alongwith the document with a option enabled for that. So finally what actually happens that rather than the most preferred way of distributing fonts as of source the font gets distributed after getting embedded in the document either in XML form (in SVG) or in some encoded form in other styles of embedding. This results in linking of a GPL'ed product with your document. As the font's Embeddable tag specifies the use you might probably think that it sufficiently defines the scope for use but it is not that simple. The clause in GPL specifically makes your document open-source and re-distributable as it links with the GPL'ed product. As for now no text in the GPL'ed fonts in circulation have specified that the Embeddable tag in the fonts over-ride the specification of GPL for making the final product open-source. In fact, technically both of these does not overlap at all to allow for over-ride. The specification of GPL is for making the final product open-source and the option in the font is for allowing the type of use; both of these are perfectly valid and non-overlapping in their respective domains. This ultimately results that your document which may perfectly be for internal use is exposed to the open world via the specification of GPL which is probably the least desired element when you opted for the GPL'ed font in the first instance.

Probable Solution

Most of the commercial and non-commercial paid/free fonts are not plagued with such a troublesome clause. So you may wish to use some of them instead. Secondly you may approach the font author to release the font under some other license like LGPL or some other specific license which does not have the clause that GPL has. In fact my writing is a step towards that direction. After all GPL is the most ill-suited license for artwork related items.
Just think about it.

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