License book club: Open Font License

Hi all! I’m starting a new regular thread here: the license book club. The idea is to post a new license every Monday for discussion throughout the week – to encourage people to read the licenses we use, to learn about how they work, to ask questions, and to improve license literacy generally.

Read this week’s license, and then come back to discuss it here. Feel free to provide your own insights and comments, or ask questions about the text, its usage, its history, and so on. Also feel free to suggest licenses for next week’s discussion.

This week’s license is the Open Font License version 1.1 (SPDX: OFL-1.1).

The OFL is the most common license used for freely distributable fonts. It is also interesting in the story of how it was recognized by the OSI, FSF, and Debian as compatible with free software. It has a very strange constraint in that fonts used with it must be accompanied by some kind of software, and this software has to be included in all distributions of the font:

The OFL allows the licensed fonts to be used, studied, modified and redistributed freely as long as they are not sold by themselves.

Specifically the OFL refers to “the Font Software”, which is some kind of software component that is included with the font and must be included in all distributions of the font. The OFL was approved as free software/open source in spite of this bizarre condition because it was determined that including a trivial shell script or “hello world” program with the font was sufficient to meet the license terms. In practice, most people just ignore this and treat the font files as freely distributable with or without the included software.

Further reading:


What about vendoring when we want to use such fonts ?
If you add the font into your website ressources, you will have to provides the “Font Software” too, as it would be considered as redistribution ?

Your website isn’t the “font software”. See the definition here:

“Font Software” refers to the set of files released by the Copyright Holder(s) under this license and clearly marked as such. This may include source files, build scripts and documentation.

Your website is covered under “bundling” or “embedding”, here:

The OFL allows the licensed fonts to be used, studied, modified and redistributed freely as long as they are not sold by themselves. The fonts, including any derivative works, can be bundled, embedded, redistributed and/or sold with any software provided that any reserved names are not used by derivative works. The fonts and derivatives, however, cannot be released under any other type of license. The requirement for fonts to remain under this license does not apply to any document created using the fonts or their derivatives.

Yup, sorry if this was unclear. I considered the website not as the Font Software, but as a mean to fetch the font files directly from the server. I mean, if we want the font to be seen to everybody (independently of their system fonts or their web browser), the font file should be added as a static ressource to be referenced from the stylesheet right ?
I was wondering if this could be considered as redistributing, as you make the font file available to everyone through download.

I’m not convinced that this counts as “distributing” the font, since the user would have to go out of their way to find the font file and reuse it for themselves. It’s a different matter if you put up a link to download the font directly.

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I have a different (more simplistic) view: if the bits are leaving your control (e.g. your server) and are sent to somebody else (e.g. a browser running on someone else’s computer), then it is considered a “distribution” of this content.

the license book club. The idea is to post a new license every Monday for discussion throughout the week

Thank you! This is a wonderful idea! My day job involves licensing compliance, so any initiative that increases the knowledge on this field is welcome.

This week’s license is the Open Font License version 1.1 (SPDX: OFL-1.1).

Another interesting point about this license, besides the “must include software” that was mentioned, is the clause that forces everyone who modifies the software (the font) to use a different name and not reuse the original one, if it’s marked as “reserved”. We don’t usually have such clause on Free Software licenses. Some projects use other methods (i.e., rely on trademark rights) for protecting their names.

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I don’t think this is the generally understood interpretation and I don’t think any judge would agree with you. In a similar vein of thought, is using a font to typeset a newspaper and mailing it out to subscribers also distributing that font? You could reverse engineer the font from the samples in a newspaper pretty easily, and you can reverse engineer the font files out of any software, website, etc, just the same. Not a form of distribution IMHO.

Good call pointing this out – it is unique to OFL indeed!

Maybe we need a thread “what do you consider distribution” – it would be interesting to see different views.

In the case of the printed newspaper, the digital font has been fixed in a physical medium and no one would argue that this consitutes a distribution of a digital artifact.

In your interpretation, is the JavaScript code in web pages not being distributed when some browser visits a web server? What about the text and images? Where do you draw the line on digital content sent from one computer to another?

As for “generally understood”, I have no data. I know that what I described is the common interpretation of a large number of commercial companies, since this is the environment I’m involved in.

The thing is, there is no way to display text with a given font on the user’s computer without sending them the font file, or else rasterizing it on the server which would be a very shitty way to display text.

The law, licenses, etc, these are not computer programs. They do not have flaws that stem from anal misinterpretations of the text. Intent matters, and the intent is not to consider this stuff a kind of distribution. I don’t think the web is special in this regard; you have to include the font file somehow to use it at all, and given that the intent is obviously for it to be used, there’s no way anyone is going to seriously argue in a court of law that simply including it on a web page is a kind of distribution because you can reverse engineer the file out of the website.

I seem to recall that there were other licenses way before the OFL that required renaming when distributing modified copies, which is the reason DFSG#4 contains this line: “The license may require derived works to carry a different name or version number from the original software.”

This was in response to the LaTeX Public License (prior to 1.3, which weakened the condition). The LPPL 1.2 says:

  1. You must not distribute the modified file with the filename of the original file.

This, I feel, is very similar to the OFL’s requirement, and predates it by almost a decade.

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I understand your argument, @ddevault, but allow me to disagree.
As far as I know, there was never any court case or decision on such issue. The latest font-related stuff is the recent decisions by German courts that if you do not self-host Google fonts but point to you are violating GDPR, since you send user information without notifying them.

Anyway, back to the issue on “distribution”. Being able to re-use something for a different purpose has never been part of a license condition. So the fact that the digital font cannot be used by the user to typeset other text and is only used for showing the website content should not play any part on the decision. On the contrary, where would following this line of thought take us?

What do you consider that gets distributed, when I give someone a statically linked executable? Don’t libraries that are inside get distributed, although they are not ready to be used in other ways?

I think the interpretation I follow is the one that all of FSF, SFC, and FSFE agree on. By coincidence, next week I am attending the Legal Licensing Workshop organized by FSFE. I’ll try to have an informal poll about this and get views of people. I can report back, if there is interest.

That doesn’t have anything to do with licensing.

I am curious to know what they say. Maybe you’re on to something here, but I remain unconvinced.

But “reverse-engineering” a font file from set letterforms doesn’t yield the original font program, the original OTF file or whatever. It will yield the same or almost the same letterforms, but those aren’t the subject of the copyright to begin with.

Mailing the set newspaper is not distributing the font, because the font is the OTF file, not the letters’ shapes.

It might yield a copyright infringement, even if it does not yield a byte for byte reproduction of the font file.

I think we have a tendency to forget the domains in which these licenses operate: copyright, trademarks, patents. These are laws with specific meanings, behaviors, and practices that transcend the parts we use for free software.