Methods of Distribution: Digital Fonts and the Global Market

Essays by Peter Biľak
1 802 words10 min read

The Golden Age?
‘The golden age’. This is the type designer’s present situation, according to Deborah Littlejohn’s provocative description in the latest issue of Eye magazine. Although it can be safely assumed that many previous generations of designers also believed that they were living in a ‘golden age’, there is some substance to this claim.

Everything started with the ‘digital revolution’, a ‘democratisation of technology’ that gave type designers the tools to create typefaces which would have required heavy machinery just a decade earlier. And just another decade later, the Internet forever transformed the way we access and work with information. The nearly 100 million commercial sites on the World Wide Web sell everything imaginable, opening new possibilities for authors publishing their own books, bands selling their own music, and programmers distributing their own software.

Transformed from a physical product into a collection of ones and zeros, typefaces are also ideally suited for distribution via the web, email or removable media. Access to both digital design tools and digital distribution channels has produced a new model for dissemination of digital goods, partially liberating artists from distributors: just as writers and musicians can get their work directly to their audiences, font designers can get their work directly to end users. While direct contact between the creator and user seems so obvious that it is hard to imagine any other system, it is quite different from the classic distribution model.

Physical distribution
This model, often taught at universities as the only viable economic model, has remained essentially unchanged since 1602, when the Dutch East India Company became the prototype of the multinational corporation, buying spices in Indonesia for next to nothing and selling them to rich people a world away for a small fortune. The spices changed hands several time between their production and their use, everybody (with the exception of the producer and consumer) making a handsome profit in the process. And although the final price was several times the production cost, it was not the final retailer who benefited from the difference, but the whole chain of intermediaries along the way.

Obviously there is a great difference between physical products like spices and intellectual products like digital typefaces, but a similar model prevails in font distribution today. FontShop, the well-established German distributor, is an example: its house label FontFont licenses products directly from the designers, then sells them via its international network. Although FontFont pays higher royalties than some other established type foundries, they still amount to only 20% of the retail price. The remaining 80% is consumed by the distribution process, international marketing and advertising being generally the largest line item.

Ways of Distribution
It would be misleading, however, to think that designers who publish their own fonts earn more money for their products. The trade-off is clear: working through a large distributor means access to a wider audience, though at the cost of a smaller share of the retail price. Having direct contact with consumers guarantees a full share of the profit, but not a broad client base.


Furthermore, not every designer is ready to set up the necessary retail infrastructure, deal with customers and invest into marketing. Xavier Dupré, one of today’s most prolific type designers, decided to publish his types with not one, but three existing type foundries, FontFont, Emigre and FontBureau. This freed him from having to manage distribution concerns, but at the cost that he would have no control over how sales were conducted, or how prices would be set. He also doesn’t know who is using his fonts.

Other designers have made the opposite choice. Jean-François Porchez initially declined to use a distributor ‘For several reasons: To able to offer real service to users directly from the designer, to provide good type specimens, feedback, adaptations to the real needs of customers, etc. All the advantages of being in direct connection. It was also to limit piracy; as a designer I don’t like to have a bunch of my fonts offered for free by others.’ Recently, however, he has changed his approach in order to get the best of both worlds. While full OpenType versions of his fonts are available exclusively from his own foundry, versions with reduced character sets are sold via other distribution channels.

The choice of distribution method is an important strategic tool in determining a font’s exclusivity, where it should and should not be available. To the extent that distribution contributes to the font’s usability, it requires the same energy and creativity that was invested into creating the product in the first place. Thus for self-publishing designers, the division between the creative work of designing and the creative work of distribution begins to blur as what they offer and how they offer it become two parts of the same creative process.

André Baldinger, a Swiss designer based in Paris, sells his fonts directly through his website, though he admits that his other projects leave him with very little time to handle distribution. He adds that he is ‘personally clearly much more interested in the type design process than in the marketing, although this is an important part’.

Though most designers share Baldinger’s preference for the ‘art’ aspect over the ‘business’ aspect, there is also a minority that experiments with distribution methods. The Dutch foundry Underware, for example, bundles its fonts with €15 books that are set using the fonts and thus serve as type specimens. This enables the user to get the fonts directly from the designers and install them on his computer immediately. Underware hopes that this first-hand experience will convince people to pay for the fonts when they use them for commercial purposes, obtaining a user licence for software that they already physically possess. Judging by the company’s success, this innovative idea is working, although analysis is somewhat complicated by the fact that Underware’s fonts are also distributed through other, more conventional channels which require payment in the usual way.

Data Distribution
While the digital revolution and Internet have given designers a wide range of innovative distribution methods to choose from, they also present new challenges in the form of intellectual property theft. Most people would probably agree that content creators such as musicians, writers and designers should be paid for their work, and most people would probably never steal a CD from a shop, and yet these same people don’t hesitate to upload and download music, movies or fonts over the Internet. One user in an online discussion about copyright infringement commented: ‘Copyright is dead. people just aren’t used to it yet. It is about the simple reality that copying information is free, be it a font or an MP3. Copying is not theft. It is replication. You can’t stop digital replication.’


Thus new distribution channels are constantly emerging, channels which are controlled neither by content creators nor by publishers, but solely by the interests of the users: content flows from creator to user without the corresponding flow of remuneration in the opposite direction. Many designers find their fonts available for free download on file-sharing sites just days after their release. French type designer Christoph Badani complained, ‘I don’t think that this climate is very positive and favourable, with new opportunities for designers.’ Worse still, ambiguities in the interpretation of copyright law make it hard to crack down on unauthorised distribution of digital files.

Today, file sharing is estimated to account for over one-third of all Internet traffic, an alarming number. Some artists, however, are trying to exploit this trend rather than fight it. When the music file-sharing site Napster was credited with driving Radiohead’s album Kid A to the top of the Billboard charts, the band released the album In Rainbows on a pay-what-you-like basis via their website. In an interview in Wired magazine, the band commented that while many fans chose to pay nothing, ‘In terms of digital income, we’ve made more money out of this record than out of all the other Radiohead albums put together, forever — in terms of anything on the Net.’ Radiohead’s Thom Yorke said ‘We have a moral justification in what we did in the sense that the majors and the big infrastructure of the music business have not addressed the way artists communicate directly with their fans. In fact, they seem to basically get in the way. Not only do they get in the way, but they take all the cash.’ But only after the album was released on CD and vinyl did it go straight to the top of the UK charts, indicating that fans really wanted a tangible product.

Although the pay-what-you-like model is superficially similar to the shareware distribution of software, it is not really applicable to font distribution. In addition to making money from merchandising, recording artists receive royalty payments every time their music is played on radio, on TV or in public places. And just as the shareware model declined rapidly at the end of the 1990s, so Radiohead also decided against using the pay-what-you-like method with their future albums. Thom Yorke concluded: ‘I don’t think it would have the same significance now anyway, if we chose to give something away again,’ he said, describing it as a ‘one-off response to a particular situation’.

Curiously, although the Internet is delivering more and more fonts to more and more customers all over the world, the overwhelming majority of them are not used on the Web itself. Even in this time of ever-faster technological innovation, web designers are forced to rely on a few dozen fonts preselected by Microsoft and Apple. The World Wide Web Consortium’s attempt to make the other 99.99% of fonts available to browsers would treat fonts like any other online content, storing them on servers and leaving them vulnerable to being extracted from webpages. Font foundries have, of course, protested vehemently and added new license conditions to prohibit unprotected online use. Other type designers are lobbying for the creation of a new font format which would support protected online use, but if and when such a format is implemented, it will take years to achieve wide support by browsers, developers and designers.

Thus, although more type designers than ever before make their living thanks to the web, they are reluctant to support online use of their fonts on the very medium that supports their industry. The issue of how to create a distribution model for fonts used over the Internet needs to be addressed now, before other technological advances take place. Because as we know, constant change is the only guarantee that we have.

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    Peter Biľak works in the field of editorial, graphic, and type design. In 1999 he started Typotheque type foundry, in 2000, together with Stuart Bailey he co-founded art & design journal Dot Dot Dot, in 2012 he started Works That Work, a magazine of unexpected creativity, in 2015 together with Andrej Krátky he co-founded, a font rental platform. He collaborates with the choreographer Lukas Timulak on creation of modern dance performances, and together they started, a foundation for interdisciplinary artistic collaborations. Peter is teaching at the Type & Media, postgraduate course at the Royal Academy of Arts, The Hague. Member of AGI (Alliance Graphique Internationale).