Why Google Web Fonts aren’t really open source

One of my major prompts for thinking about the essential qualities of open source has been the Google Web Fonts project, which claims to be a library of open-source fonts. I design type. I worked at Red Hat. I was intrigued by the concept. There’s no reason open-source fonts can’t exist. But on closer inspection, Google Web Fonts are not “open source” in any meaningful sense.

I wrote some previous comments (here and here) about Google Web Fonts as part of a discussion about Roboto, the new Android font. What follows is a more detailed criticism of Google Web Fonts, but it’s also a call for Google to do better. They can and they should.

How do I know they can? In the engineering arena, Google has shown itself to be a good citizen of the open-source world. For instance: Python. For seven years, Google employed Python’s creator and benevolent dictator, Guido van Rossum. According to Guido, he got “to spend half [his] time on Python, no strings attached[.]” Google has adopted Python as its “main scripting language.” Google has released Python source code and libraries. Beyond Python, Google maintains a whole blog devoted to its open-source activites. Even the Google Web Fonts team has released open-source code for reading and editing fonts.

But what you won’t find on Google’s open-source blog, nor on its Open Source Programs website, is any mention of the Google Web Fonts themselves. This is odd, because according to Google, “All of the fonts are Open Source.” Really? The omission suggests that Google might have doubts whether these fonts qualify as open source.

I’m convinced that they don’t. To make the case, I’ll step through my seven essential qualities of open source (including the dilution–reality dichotomy introduced in that article). I’ll explain how Google Web Fonts falls short, and what Google could do to improve the program.

Essential quality #1
Dilution: Open source arises from a spirit of freedom and cooperation.
Reality: Open source arises from a spirit of capitalist competition.

It’s no coincidence that Google launched its webfont project in May 2010, the same period that other competing services (like Typekit and Webtype) were also getting off the ground. It’s also no coincidence that this effort has emerged during Google’s campaign to become more platform-oriented rather than application-oriented, building out Android, Chrome OS, and Google Docs. The Droid and Roboto font projects are the clearest examples of platform-oriented fonts.

So let’s agree that Google is pursuing Google Web Fonts primarily because it’s in Google’s competitive interests to do so. It’s not altruism. And these fonts are “free” only in the trivial sense that Google does not charge us to use them. But Google always finds other ways to convert our attention into revenue, either directly (selling ads) or indirectly (distributing open-source code). These businesses are lucrative for Google because our collective attention is economically valuable. That’s why Google is a $200 billion company.

My complaint with the Google Web Fonts project isn’t that Google is benefiting from it. There’s nothing wrong with making money from open source. Many companies do. It’s that Google is trying to pretend otherwise by flying the flag of freedom and sharing:

“We believe that there should not be any barriers to making great websites… you are free to share your favorites with friends and colleagues … If you design fonts and would like to contribute your own designs, please get in touch…”

This is disingenuous. Google does not care about “barriers to making great websites.” Google cares about Google. It’s also contrary to Google’s usual policy of not being cagey about how it makes its money. When Google puts an ad on a page, there’s no guile about what it is or why it’s there. Why is Google playing its cards close to the vest in this instance? Which brings us to the next point:

Essential quality #2
Dilution: Open-source developers work for free.
Reality: Open-source developers are paid.

The idea that open-source contributors work for free is one of the most persistent and insidious myths of open source. Insidious because it’s the preferred tool of companies who want to harvest the benefits of open source without assuming its burdens.

Here, it’s not in Google’s interest to reveal the boring reality—Google benefits from Google Web Fonts—because it would dampen the enthusiasm of the designers who contribute fonts for little to no money.

In the design world, there’s a well-known swindle where a prestigious but stingy client says “I wish I could pay you, but I don’t have the budget. How about you let me use your work for free? I know it’ll be great exposure for you, and lead to paying work.” In truth, it’s not, and it won’t. Designer Jessica Hische aptly calls this “the most toxic line of bullshit anyone will ever feed you.” Why? Because it’s just good-natured grifting, an exploitation of the weaker by the stronger. Nevertheless, it works, because there will always be designers hungry enough to believe that they don’t have other choices.

Google Web Fonts uses a variation of this toxic line as part of its pitch to potential open-source font contributors:

“We are working with designers around the world to publish quality typeface designs that are made for the web. If you design fonts and would like to contribute your own designs, please get in touch. Fonts in the directory can become very popular and seen by millions of people every day.”

Google is using the lure of exposure to “millions of people” as an inducement to get designers to contribute their time and their work for less than its market value, all for the pleasure of being an open-source contributor.

To be fair, over the past year, Google has been making more of an effort to pay designers. One Google Web Fonts contractor told me that they were offering $500‑3000 per font. Let’s suppose Google pays you in the middle of that range ($1750) for each style in a four-style font family, or $7000 total. Let’s also suppose you spent three months on that project. Do you think that’s comparable to what a web designer employed by Google would get paid, including benefits, health care, stock options, etc. in the same three-month period? Clearly not.

How can Google do better? One model is to pay market rates for type-design services and then release the results under an open license. This was the model for the Droid fonts, made by Monotype Imaging. It would be an improvement, but not especially open-source in spirit.

The better option would be for Google to embrace the open-source model more wholeheartedly. Google doesn’t pay community engineers to work on open-source code. So Google also shouldn’t pay community type designers to work on open-source fonts. Instead, Google should provide those type designers the other benefits of working on an open-source project. (Keep reading.)

Essential quality #3
Dilution: Open source makes things free.
Reality: Open source redefines what is valuable.

In the open-source model, the point of making software code free is not to destroy the marketplace for software, but rather to shift the value elsewhere. Making one thing free without making something else more valuable misses the point.

Google has likewise missed the point by releasing hundreds of fonts for free without creating corresponding value elsewhere. In that regard, Google Web Fonts is not part of the lineage of open-source projects, but rather file-sharing projects like 1001 Free Fonts, which are guided by the principle “Here’s a bunch of useless crap that you’ll like because it’s free.”

You might counter by pointing out that the Google Web Fonts team has created new value by releasing open-source code for working with webfonts. True, but I consider the code-writing part of Google Web Fonts to be distinct from the font-creation part. Google has a good handle on how to work on open-source software. What Google is missing is a similar rationale for fonts.

How can Google do better? By putting forward a coherent concept of how Google Web Fonts can redefine value in the font market. The world already has plenty of useless free fonts. Google Web Fonts is blazing no trails there.

Google has multiple options. I think that Google Web Fonts could be an interesting training opportunity for aspiring type designers who can’t drop everything and move to Berlin or New York (or other urban center) to learn the trade. In this way, it would be similar to how open-source software projects provide opportunities for engineers without a strong résumé to learn and contribute. But the value of this mechanism depends entirely on the next point:

Essential quality #4
Dilution: Open source has no barriers to participation.
Reality: Open source relies on meritocracies.

I alluded to it above, but this is the moment to fully confront the unavoidable truth: measured by professional standards, the average Google Web Font is just awful. Some are better than others, but nearly all fall prey to at least one fatal flaw of being ugly, incomplete, poorly drawn, poorly spaced, amateurish, or just unusable. And I don’t say that to criticize the designers themselves. They’re enthusiastic about type design. But that enthusiasm should be channeled into improving their skills and making better fonts. Right now, it’s not. And Google isn’t helping.

If you think it’s unfair to compare Google Web Fonts to professional fonts, sorry, but that’s the open-source way. (See also Essential Quality #1.) The open-source option is only relevant if it can compete with the quality of the proprietary version. Does Google release tons of low-quality open-source code into the world? No. It lives up to professional open-source standards. Google should adopt analogous standards for fonts.

How can Google do better? This one’s easy: fewer fonts, higher quality. The need for new fonts is never in doubt. Time passes. Technology evolves. Requirements change. In the last generation, companies like Apple and Microsoft invested large sums in making the system fonts that millions of people have relied on for 20 years. Google has the opportunity to step into that role, if it chooses.

But making quality fonts requires quality designers. Open source does not mean “open to all.” It means “open to all who can work to the necessary standard.” If Google wants quality, Google Web Fonts cannot remain open to anyone who wants to give a font away for free.

Essential quality #5
Dilution: Open source is democratic.
Reality: Open source relies on benevolent dictators.

This one’s also easy: assuming that Google developed fewer fonts, each project should be led by an experienced, respected, professional type designer. This would be analogous to open-source software, where projects are led by experienced, respected, professional software engineers. Google should pay these professional type designers market rates to assume these roles. They would become the arbiters of which contributions get included and which don’t.

Three results: 1) Google would get professional-quality fonts at a lower cost than proprietary development. 2) Community type designers would get to work with professional type designers (which is the best way of improving skills). 3) Google would be releasing genuine open-source assets into the world, that would be good enough to inspire more development. For instance, the freely available font Charter—designed by the esteemed Matthew Carter in 1987—became the basis of Charis SIL. Have any current Google Web Fonts been similarly adapted?

“But under this scheme, far fewer designers will have their contributions used.” Yes. That’s the point. Benevolent dictators get to pick the worthiest contributions. Open source is not open-mic night. Those who want to release a font for free will always have plenty of options. It’s not true that anyone is entitled to participate in an open-source project. If you disagree, please get me Guido van Rossum on the phone, because I want him to add Klingon commands to the core syntax of Python. And an ASCII unicorn to every source file.

Essential quality #6
Dilution: An open-source project can have one developer.
Reality: An open-source project requires multiple developers.

Most Google Web Fonts are the work of one to three designers, working in isolation from other designers. Maybe Google does some rudimentary quality control—it’s hard to tell from the results. But in most cases, the font is done when the designer says it’s done. The font does not have to meet any external standards.

With multiple designers working under a benevolent dictator, there would be a competition of design ideas. Type designers who were lazy or careless would quickly find that there was no room for their work. They would either improve their work, thereby becoming better designers, or retreat. Either way, the project would benefit.

Essential quality #7
Dilution: A software project can be open-sourced at any time.
Reality: Open source is part of the project’s DNA or it’s not.

In theory, there’s no reason open-source fonts can’t exist, and can’t be good. I’ll assume that Google sincerely wants to make fonts that have open source in their DNA, and not just “Another 1001 Free Fonts.”

But if that’s the case, Google has to change its approach. I said before that “Google has a great engineering culture, a weak design culture, and no discernible taste.” I stand by that. To get different results, Google will need to approach open-source fonts in a way that plays to its strengths (engineering) and avoids its weaknesses (design and taste). Focusing on a smaller number of fonts and hiring benevolent dictators from the professional type-design industry would be good first steps. Even Microsoft was able to overcome its taste deficits to make Verdana, which is now in the Museum of Modern Art.

More broadly, Google should consider that its interests as a participant in the font world are parallel to its interests in the software world. Regardless of whether your project is open or proprietary, the results depend on the talent of the people building it. Developing the talent pool always pays dividends. But that can’t happen by merely making fonts free. It requires a more thorough and thoughtful approach. Google is possibly capable of that.

It’s also possible that Google, with its cultural bias toward engineering, simply doesn’t acknowledge that type-design skill exists and has value. If that’s so, Google Web Fonts will remain the Costco of typography: always getting bigger, never getting better. If that ends up being in Google’s best interests, fine. But please, Google—don’t call it open source. You know better. So do we.

[A few more words about how quality begets quality in creative endeavors, and how for Google, typography is part of an advertising economy, not a creator economy.]