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How many open fonts licenses are there?

Recently I’ve been stump-speeching at the various free-software conferences I haunt on the topic of some plumbing-layer issues that affect using fonts on Linux systems.

One interesting rabbit hole in this field of stumps is the subject of font licenses. Today, we live in a harmonious world where open and libre fonts are uniformly distributed under the SIL Open Font License, and all is simple in our garden. Or so people think.

Technically speaking, of course, there have been two versions of the SIL OFL, so it’s actually possible that some of the fonts you refer to as “OFL licensed” are yours under the terms of OFL 1.0, and others under the current version, 1.1. It’s also possible that some of those fonts were published with the Reserved Font Name clause activated and some were not. So there are four possibilities, if you count how that clause alters compliance tracking.

Nevertheless, that’s still a complexity-free environment in which to roam: four license variants, demarking a known-and-knowable world like the pillars of Hercules & whatever was directly opposite the pillars of Hercules.

Five, if you count the fact that you may have fonts on your system that are published under the other major alternative, the GNU GPL with Font-Embedding Exception. Six if you include the MIT license, let’s say. Seven if you include Apache, eight or nine if you include BSD variants with a different number of clauses (ignoring for now how many, because I lose track; my point, after all, is that there are very few).

Still, that’s not that many. Ten if you include the IPA Font License. Eleven if you have X11 fonts. Twelve if you have an Artistic License font. Which exist.

That’s what we tell ourselves, anyhow. But although I didn’t mention it up front, we’re really just limiting the above list to the licenses currently included in the SPDX License List. Although SPDX is widely used as a machine-readable way to track licenses, it’s not the only place to look to see what licenses people are using for their open fonts.

If you run Debian or a Debian-based distribution, for example, then you don’t live in the small, confined world of ten-ish libre font licenses. You live, instead, in a funtastic world of broad historical context and twenty-plus-ish years of free software and, for much of that time period, there were no readymade, boiler-plate–like font licenses to select. Consequently, many people imbued with sudden inspiration rose up and boldly wrote their own licenses.

Since font packages tend to be things that reach a “completion point”, after which they get few-to-no further releases, many of these license-pioneering font packages persist to this day. As a result, their singleton licenses survive into the 21st Century as well.

A few such coelacanths belong to fonts well-known among Debian users, such as

  • The Bitstream Vera license (which also applies to DejaVu)
  • The Bitstream Charter license (which is not under same license as Vera, although it is comparable)
  • The Liberation Fonts License
  • The ParaType Free Font License
  • The Ubuntu Font License
  • The STIX Fonts License
  • The TUG Utopia License
  • The Larabie Fonts EULA

Others might not be as well-known, but are in fighting shape nonetheless:

  • The M+ Fonts Project License
  • The Arphic Public License
  • The GUST Font License
  • The Magenta Open License
  • The Mikachan Fonts License

If you have TeX installed, you have even more options to explore, including:

  • The Day-Roman Font License
  • The Luxi Fonts License
  • The Luxi Mono Font License
  • The Adobe Euro Font License
  • The Librerias Gandhi Font License
  • The Literat Font License
  • The IBM Courier License

That might seem like enough. But license authoring is a creative endeavor, and when the muse strikes, it can be hard to ignore. Yet not everyone so inspired is truly gifted with originality, so there are several  licenses to be found that may or may not actually be doppelgangers of other licenses (apart from the name itself). If you’re a lawyer, you can probably read and decide for yourself. If you’re unwilling to set aside that much of your day and that much of your soul, you might just assume that these other licenses are all distinct:

  • The Baekmuk License
  • The Open Government Data License
  • The Hanazono Font License
  • The UmeFont License
  • The BaKoMa Fonts License
  • The Misaki Fonts License
  • The Oradano Mincho Fonts License
  • The SazanamiFont License
  • The Hershey Fonts License

But that’s about it. Although, to be honest, that’s just as far as I got digging into packages in Debian, and there are a few I never could sort out, such as the license of WINE fonts and Symbola Fonts license. Maybe I should start looking again. Oh, and I guess there are LaTeX-licensed fonts.

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