Typographica Mea Culpa, Unethical Downloading

Essays by Steven Heller
1 550 words8 min read

When I collected stamps as a kid I sent away for “approval” packs with the proviso that I’d return what I did not pay for in five days. Needless to say, I broke the covenant, and I felt exhilarated the first time I kept all the stamps without paying for them. During the course of my mail-order crime spree I accumulated a drawer full of “bill me later” subscription invoices to magazines and ignored the futile collection letters. I later graduated to newspaper honor boxes. How many of you have taken more than one? I did, until I realized that I only really needed one paper. That’s when I had an epiphany. I was speeding down the road to perdition. I changed my evil ways and have been upstanding ever since. Well, almost..

This near religious experience did not extend to type fonts. In fact, until recently I always discarded the licensing agreements that come with type because the words “Read Me” had an onerous ring. By not reading the large print I chose not to acknowledge the muddy ethical waters in which I was about to wade. Through ignorance or malice, or the malice that comes from voluntary ignorance, many designers that I know simply ignore type licenses and, therefore, cavalierly trade or transfer entire fonts to fellow designers, service bureaus, mechanical artists, printers, lovers, or in-laws. The digital age has made this easy, but as I realized it does not make it right. Illicit type sharing betrays an honor system that can only work if we are all honorable.

The fact is, design is an honorable profession. We are not the cut-throat garment industry where styles and fabrics are routinely stolen by both big and small. Designers tend to respect one another’s intellectual property lines and do not as a rule engage in extreme larceny. And yet we have a skeweed sense of entitlement when it comes to type. Perhaps because type is the most common means of written communication we assume the license to usurp it at will and without ramification as though it were decoupage.

The computer put the means of production in our hands and doing so it implied freedom from vendors. Before the computer type was bought directly from type-shops. We received a proof or film strip of type and paid our money. It was a clear-cut transaction. But even then I said to myself: “If only I had my own PhotoTypositor (remember them?) I would make my own fonts and never have to pay for type again. Then I actually got my own Typositor and found that making custom film fonts was even more expensive than buying them. So I reasoned that the only explanation for paying for them was convenience, and secretly longed for the day that type was made readily available. Hey what about a box on my desk? Then I’ll never pay for type again. And low and behold the Macintosh was invented and type was available in a box on my desk. And you know something? It was (and is) easy to get some fonts without paying for them.


Well, not the really good ones. So, for those faces unavailable through shareware (or a share-buddy) I paid my money and got the font. What I did not know, however, because as I said I never read the licensing agreements, was the limitations imposed on my “ownership.” I reckoned that whenever I used a legitimately purchased font, it was mine to do with as I pleased and had the right to pass it along to anyone on the production assembly line that needed to work with my particular document and with the particular face(s). Therefore, I copied the font and send it to them. I wasn’t even consciously stealing because I presumed this was my eminent domain.

I was dead wrong, type sharing is akin to tapping into cable TV. In fact, as it turns out, I was technically engaging in copyright infringement. All font software is protected by copyright and some typeface designs are protected by patents, which provides foundries with legal recourse. Some foundries have successfully gone to court over these issues, and in a few cases the FBI (the same body that never came after me for pilfering stamps) has been involved. I am told that this happened with someone who posted hundreds of fonts from dozens of foundries on the Internet for anybody to download (functioning somewhat like Napster). The FBI impounded his computers and the case is currently awaiting trial.

“All typefaces, from almost every foundry (from Adobe to House), are automatically licensed for a specific number of output devices and CPUs at one location. It is an industry standard,” explains Rudy Vanderlans, founder of Émigré Fonts. “If you gave the font to someone else to carry through the designs, that means that they now have a free, illegally obtained copy on their computer. Most likely they will use it for another design job sometime in the future without remembering or being concerned where that font originally came from. It’s a scenario we come across nearly every single day.”

In the face of this, my mea culpa may sound disingenuous. After all, I work with and have written about type designers. I thought I knew their concerns, and Vanderlans is not alone. Every digital type founder that I have since spoken to complains of sharing abuses. Not surprisingly, many designers I’ve contacted admit to sharing because they “didn’t know it was wrong.” To this Vanderlans rebukes, “[They] simply didn’t read the license agreement that comes with the font. Like the Church Lady used to say: “Isn’t that Conveeeenient.”

He’s right. I would not use a font without paying for it yet once installed I have readily share with others. Ignorance is no excuse. Type vendors have gone to great lengths and expense to publicize these issues, yet designers have either not heard or ignored them for reasons that are endemic to unrealistic notions of entitlement. Why do we feel we have a right to unlimited access to digital fonts? Is it because in the digital realm ownership is still fuzzy? Or are we lulled into lackadaisical ethical behavior because in the digital realm it is so easy to down load images and text? Or is it simply a primal need to get the proverbial free lunch that H.L. Mencken admonished did not really exist?


As fundamental as it is to visual communication, type is not considered sacrosanct in the same way as, say, a photograph or illustration. The principle of “one time usage” or “one person licensee” seems foreign when it comes to type. Vanderlans says that when this is brought to violators’ attention “people usually admit their error and pay for the fonts.” But some designers resent any strictures: “I bought a font for use in a book,” explains a designer that I know, “it never occurred to me that I could not give it to my mechanical person, and from him to the printer. Isn’t it enough that I paid for it? Do the foundries have to bleed me for an additional fee each time I use it on a job?” Vanderlans counters that he does not charge anybody an additional fee for each use. “Once you purchase a copy, users can use the font on as many jobs, for as long as they want. And there is a way to hand your design job to a service bureau without breaching the font license. You can supply your documents as EPS files or Adobe Acrobat files with fonts embedded so you don’t have to give the service bureau a copy of the font(s). Or users can buy a special license that allows them to take a font to their service bureau.”

Nonetheless, veterans who are unfamiliar with the new or are used to the old methods may be confused by current procedures and, therefore, take the line of least resistance. It’s easy to copy fonts, so they copy away. Younger designers, who are used to downloading shareware and other freebees may be spoiled by the bounty of entitlements (the Napster ethic). The education process continues.

Fontographer made it possible for anyone with skill to design a typeface. Some ethically challenged type vendors have pilfered original designs from the leading digital foundries, changed the name of the type, and sold them at cut-rate prices. This is obviously wrong, and Vanderlans notes that “most have been taken to court and lost, or settled by paying large sums of money, and ultimately discontinued their pirate ways.” Yet it should not take a lot of additional soul-searching to conclude that violating the “industry standard” licensing agreement is also unfair to the people who have worked hard to make the type that we all use.

For years I have allowed designers working for me to infringe the agreement that I have failed to read. Forget about legality, without adherence to the fundamental principal, we place our colleagues in financial jeopardy and we become much less ethical in the bargain.

  • Art director of the New York Times Book Review and founder and co-chair of the School of Visual Arts, New York MFA/Design Program. He is the former editor of the AIGA Journal of Graphic Design and author or editor of over 80 books on popular culture, graphic design history, and political art. His most recent books include The Graphic Design Reader, Allworth Press, The Education of a Design Designer, Allworth Press, and Counter Culture: The Allure of Mini-Mannequins, Princeton Architectural Press. His forthcoming books include: From Merz to Emigre and Beyond: Progressive Magazine Design of the 20th Century, Phaidon Press, Cuba Style: Graphics From the Golden Age of Design, Princeton Architectural Press, and Graphic Humor: The Art of Graphic Wit, Allworth Press.