Fonts, Free Press, and the Monopoly

This article at the Register discusses one of the major hurtles confronting would be challengers to the Microsoft throne, fonts. It may seem like an insignificant part of the whole, but it is important enough that current U.S. law actually makes an exception for copyrighting the shape and design of fonts in the name of free press. This means that, for all intents and purposes, you could rename a font and redistribute it…in the States. Other countries are not so forgiving, and that's where trouble comes into paradise.

Fonts and typefaces, what's the difference?
Before addressing the issues behind fonts, we first have to define exactly what a font is. A font is one or more typefaces. It may be as simple as letters and digits. It may include fractions, symbols and non-Roman characters. One of the most common fonts, Times New Roman, has the several typefaces that we use or encounter almost every day: normal, bold, and italic.

Anyone can design a typeface using one of a number of popular applications. You can trace the letters and numbers, and -- presto! -- you've got a font. However, to be truly useful to most Americans, a font needs several typefaces: normal, bold, and italic are good for starters. To be useful to a company like Microsoft, a typeface needs to be able to support diacritics, non-Roman characters, etc.

The Sum of the Parts
As the article notes, even the venerable Times New Roman, completed in 1932, lacks the glyphs (characters) to support languages of the Far East, Hebrew, Arabic, and South Asia. So, if Microsoft, or a competing operating system vendor, wishes to sell their programs in these areas, they have to use -- and purchase for redistribution -- other fonts. For the retail consumer to purchase just the various typefaces which comprise the Times New Roman font, it would cost more than Windows itself, which comes with dozens of fonts.

Out in the Cold
So, anyone wishing to compete with Microsoft has to overcome this fundamental problem: how do we display text on the screen. As mentioned above, U.S. laws are sufficiently lenient enough to allow ways to circumvent such a restriction. However, other countries are not so lenient. So, to go this route is to limit yourself to fighting Microsoft on their home turf.

Most competing operating systems haven't gone this way. Instead, they simply use alternative, royalty free, uncopyrighted fonts. However, since the process of developing a font with all its various typefaces can take months -- if not years -- very few truly useful, uncopyrighted fonts exist. Of those, few compare to fonts like Time New Roman, which has had 70 years to mature.

The Monopoly
I've used Microsoft as an example, but the Macintosh also incorporates several copyrighted fonts and is similarly priced to Microsoft Windows. It wouldn't seem then that this discourse on fonts fails as an example of one company waging monopolistic control. In fact, lenient copyright laws actually work against the monopoly, something that the Justice Department might take note of as they seek a resolution to the antitrust case.


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