Free fonts, a good thing?

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Noah Feldman's picture
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Free fonts, a good thing?
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Hello all you amazing type designers. I’ve recently tried my hand at developing a face of my own (you can find it in the serif section of the critique board) and am wondering what to do with it. I’ve considered releasing it under a creative commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 license. I’ve seen some really incredible free fonts (apostrophic lab fonts, for example) made available for personal use, faces that are far more complete and attractive than my own experiment. My question is, basically, is this a good idea? Does making fonts available for free, no matter the quality, effect those who make their living creating and selling fonts? Does the availability of free fonts reduce the perceived value of commercial ones, or can free and commercial fonts co-exist?

John Hudson's picture
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This is a question I have thought about a lot, in part because most of the typefaces I develop are either freely available for non-commercial use (e.g. the Society of Biblical Literature fonts) or are bundled with other software (e.g. fonts I’ve made for Microsoft) which, however incorrectly, does give many users the impression that the fonts are somehow free. My take on this kind of thing is that I’m not going to work for free, but this is a different matter from fonts themselves being free. As long as someone pays for the development at an appropriate rate, I have no objection to the fonts themselves being free.

I don’t think it is avoidable that ‘the availability of free fonts reduces the perceived value of commercial ones’ for some users. This is true whether the free fonts are on a freeware download site or show up on the user’s computer with some software. The idea that because one thing is free that everything in the same broad class should be free is simply illogic. Some of this impact can be countered with education. I think companies that bundle fonts with software, as one instance, could do more to educate users about where the fonts come from and their value — and things are improving a bit in this regard — but there will always be some people who prefer to think of fonts as valueless and free for the taking because it makes them feel less guilty about stealing them.

Your precise question — ‘Does making fonts available for free, no matter the quality, effect those who make their living creating and selling fonts?’ — deserves a precise answer: the impact of free fonts matters most when they look like commercial fonts. If someone wants to make original designs available as free fonts, who am I to say he shouldn’t? If that person wants to public’ly argue that all fonts should be free, I’ll have words to say on the subject, but what he does with his own work is his business — this, to me, is the central tenet of respect for intellectual property —, and if that includes giving away free fonts, the kind of inevitable devaluation due to stupidity or willfulness is something I need to find constructive ways to counter, through education.


[By the way, Fred Nader of Apostrophic Labs is not well liked by many professional type designers. His activities in the area of free font distribution are not limited to his own fonts or those of his willing collaborators. A few years ago he was sued by a number of commercial foundries for posting their fonts to a Usenet binaries group. So you might want to pick some other example of free font philanthropy.]

Hank Zane's picture
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Joined: 21 Jul 2003 - 11:43am
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That sounds corporatist, not elitist.

Dan Reynolds's picture
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Joined: 20 Jul 2002 - 11:00am
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>That sounds corporatist, not elitist.

Nothing bad about that, Sergej

Mike Gastin's picture
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Joined: 29 Mar 2003 - 11:00am
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As an evil businessman I would like to add that the market will sort it all out. It would be quite difficult to sustain yourself giving away work that took untold hours of your time to develop when you need to be feeding, clothing and sheltering your person.

So, it would stand to reason that in *most* cases, when a font is developed and given away it is because it was not as time consuming and potentially not as valuable as say a Majoor from FF.

That is why people are willing to pay $500 for a limited family of fonts from FF and the like. We know that we are getting a value and it is not just that the face took longer to develop

42nd SSD's picture
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quote:

But, if there is no need for a return on investment, then what would be the motivation to create great type? Yes, there will be some who want to do it for the sheer pleasure, but I would wager that you would see a fraction of the quality faces that are available now under a free system. Most humans are motivated on some level by a basic self-interest and making money, living a better life, having better health and more options seems to be a good motivator for most.




People create best when they create not for monetary gain, but for personal pleasure. An attitude of “I won’t work unless you pay me” frequently ends up in slipshod results and a “well, you got what you paid for” mentality, not creations with an attention to detail and a feeling of personal pride.

Payment isn’t incompatible with quality work, but one does not imply the other. I’ve known many extremely-well-paid professional programmers who were unbelievably bad at what they did; I’ve known at least as many programmers who have consistently done excellent work and have never been paid for it. The best programmers work not because of the money, but in spite of it.

But best in this context has many different meanings. Convincing a programmer who works for free to work on the project you want done can be difficult, especially when the project is otherwise mundane and boring. Sometimes a project can be solved quickly but in an ugly fashion, or cleanly but slowly; many people who work for free would be unwilling to do the former. In these cases someone who worked for pay would be “best”.

It would be far better for professional designers to focus on their strengths, rather than trying to tell others not to do work without pay because it means less money for the pros. The former provides positive reasons as to why people should pay them for their services, but the latter comes across as mercenary and a bit pathetic, as if they can only justify their existence by discrediting others.

The answer to your question, “Why would someone create great type?” is simple: because that someone feels a great need to create great type. The motivation may be a desire for monetary gain. Most likely it is from an internal drive to do the very best job they can.

I can say from my own experience that the work I’m doing now (after retiring four years ago) is at least as good as when I was being paid. I do it because I enjoy it, and because I take a “I will do the very best I can” attitude to everything I do. But I’ve never done any work because someone was willing to pay me, but because I enjoyed what I did. That’s been a hard line to follow; occasionally it’s meant being broke and a little hungry for a while. In the final analysis I think it was worth it.

I realize that some participants here won’t be able to understand what I’m saying, and these attitudes may seem completely foreign, perhaps even unworthy to others. Just be aware that not everyone shares the “money and safety is everything” approach to work and life, and that some of the best work done in the world was done by people who had no desire to ever earn a dime from it.

42nd SSD's picture
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I also hasten to point out that I’m not a socialist; I’m a big believer in capitalism, and I wouldn’t be where I am today without it. I simply question the value of money as a prime motivator for doing truly excellent work, based on my own experiences and from working with and managing others.

Jim Richardson's picture
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I think that Mike has a point when he says that the market will take care of itself. Back in the late nineties I started a free font website, and that led to me setting up a commercial operation. I think that most good free font developers have done the same thing, and it actually feeds the type industry with new designers who became enthused about type following good reaction to free fonts they produced.

On the other side of the fence, I think that font users may start off with free fonts and then as they leave university or grow as designers, they develop their love of type and license legal fonts.

I personally would prefer people to use free fonts rather then distribute pirated fonts, as I feel that any designer worth their salt can tell the difference between a free font and meta (for example), whilst if they have a pirated version of meta, would they bother to license it…

Just my two cents!

Jim

Andrea Emery's picture
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I agree with you entirely, Jim. Once again, education is key (and I fail to see how that can be even remotely corporatist).

Mike Gastin's picture
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42nd …

I did not say the *money* is the prime motivator. I said a better life, health etc … that includes having money, but is not limited to money. Everyone knows that money does not equal joy.

Also, my argument is not that people will make great type only for money — but more to my point is that it will be much easier for people to make great type when it brings them more than just a personal feeling of satisfaction.

We are creatures of needs and wants. Unless you can address the simple needs you can’t move onto addressing the more complex wants common to our race. So, many people work to just meet their needs — hence people that remove trash and work in meat packing plants. But, there are people — like you and I — that try to address our needs by getting paid to do something that addresses a desire for fulfillment. We work in the creative field (or in business) and it pays the bills nicely and makes us feel good about life on most days because we get to deal on levels that the meat packer does not.

Also, I was trying to make a point, but was a being a bit over the top for giggles, so please do not get too wound up on my vain imaginations.

Mike

Mike Gastin's picture
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I should also add that the above post is my 100th on Typophile! Does that not entitle me to the typographic equivalent of some sort of manhood ritual?

;)

Mike

steve paxton's picture
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Mike,

I can understand that you were hamming it up a bit for comic effect, but I think the reason that you got a response was that the idea that money = motivation hits a raw nerve with people who are motivated by non-material rewards.

You also threw in the idea that socialism removes motivation, while capitalism promotes motivation. This is really a tired old argument which has been discredited on many lavels by a whole range of people, and a large variety of arguments.
For example, it has been pointed out that under capitalism, those who work hardest (think of factory workers, nurses, miners, carers etc) are generally very poorly rewarded, while those who are very highly rewarded (owners of factories, mines etc), often do very little work at all.
In this light we might ask about the motivational strengths of capitalism.
You also state that ‘Most humans are motivated on some level by a basic self-interest’. Well, on some level, yes, but why do so many people become nurses etc. The qualification is tough, the hours are long, the pay is poor — the self-interest is in the non-monetary rewards of the vocation. For most people involved in creative work, the non-monetary rewards provide the motivation.

Noah Feldman's picture
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Joined: 26 Nov 2004 - 2:44am
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John, thank you for such a well thought out response, you’ve helped me clarify my own thinking. The availability of professional quality fonts for free is rare, most lack a full character set, range of weights, or other options that a professional would desire. For personal use this isn’t as important. People who make their livings working with fonts buy fonts, Joe six pack does not. That there are a few fonts of extreme quality available to Joe for naught is great, as everyone should experience the joy of typography.

I agree with your points regarding the re-distribution of bundled fonts, education is necessary (but I personally feel that most license are too restrictive. While I respect and generally adhere to a products license, my personal opinion is that if a product is for a professional market than the use of that product by individuals who would have no professional interest in it is not going to hurt anyone’s bottom line. But whatever). Releasing one’s own creations into the public domain should not hurt the perceived value of commercial work. I was not aware of Fred Nader’s reputation, having stumbled across his site via Luc Devroye’s link pages, regardless, some of the fonts he or his friends created are quite good, as are many of the fonts released by Dieter Steffmann (whom I assume has a better reputation?).

You wrote and if that includes giving away free fonts, the kind of inevitable devaluation due to stupidity or willfulness is something I need to find constructive ways to counter, through education. While I agree that the public at large is poorly informed when it comes to intellectual property and its value or lack there of as well as to the ethical considerations involved in infringement, I’m not certain that is the issue I meant to address. I was thinking more of how, in the graphic design community, for example, things like competitive bidding, logo and other design contests, etc. have tended to reduce the value — in terms of what a professional is willing to pay — of these services. My concern is that, given the difficulty of tracking the use of a font once it is released into the wild, it could easily be used (intentionally or through carelessness) in a commercial application without the designer ever becoming aware of it. Those who should, by the very nature of the application they intend for the font, be providing remuneration, are the focus of my question.

Noah Feldman's picture
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Yes, people are motivated by self-interest, the problem is they often mistake selfish interest for self-interest. In theory, members of a socialist system are motivated by enlightened self-interest “what is good for my neighbor is good for me” Unfortunately, in practice, socialism in practice has never worked out quite the way it has been envisioned.

Mike Gastin's picture
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-

Steve,

Thank you for your insight. I was not surprised by the response — I kinda assumed my post would raise a hackle or two, but I did not mean to irritate anyone.

To address a couple of your comments:

You said, “You also threw in the idea that socialism removes motivation, while capitalism promotes motivation. This is really a tired old argument which has been discredited on many lavels by a whole range of people, and a large variety of arguments.”

Tired old argument? Discredited? I would say that you are making too general a statement (something I am guilty of in my first post!)

If you had stated that experts the world over do not agree on which system best motivates, I would take no exception. But to claim that my stance has been discredited is a stretch.

Also, you are confusing self-interest with selfishness or self-centeredness. I would argue that your nurse IS doing what he does out of self-interest. He may have some need to help others — it makes him feel better about himself and the world he lives in. So, he becomes a nurse and thus addresses his own interests while at the same time on the surface addresses the needs of those around him.

Don’t forget, too, that not everyone has the mind to become an attorney or PhD. these people end up having fewer options in life (or at least perceived options) and some become your factory workers and miners. Please do not turn my comments around and think that I am saying every laborer is simple minded.

Your comment about the higher-level people in a capitalistic society is flawed, too. Owners of businesses work very hard — harder and longer and with much more at stake than the workers that populate their payroll. To think otherwise is simplistic and parochial.

OK — now that I have cornered myself, have barred my teeth and am hissing, please do not take my comments personally or as an attack. You are welcome to think whatever you want about economics, politics and the psychology of man — it is all too complex for anyone to claim full understanding.

Regards,

Mike

*

darrel's picture
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Joined: 4 Feb 2003 - 6:03pm
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The advent of talking moviews forcasted the end of there being any perceived value in live theater.

The advent of the VCR forcasted the end of there being perceived value in going to the movie theater.

The advent of the desktop publisher forcasted the end of there being any perceived value in graphic designers.

The advent of the stock photo industry forcasted the end of there being any percevied value in custom photography.

Etc.

In the end, it doesn’t always destroy an industry to give something away for much less than before. Usually, things can coexist…the exception being when there’s a monopoly power that’s the one doing the dumping of product for pennies.

Personally, I think I could find personal satisfaction in selling my font commercially or giving it away free under the creative commons license. They’re just different types of satisfaction.

Hank Zane's picture
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Dan, I didn’t say corporatist was bad. Corporatism is, in fact, smart business, and I’d say you are a corporatist since you work for a corporation (if I’m not mistaken) and are proud if it.

Anyhow, you cannot teach others to respect something. It is something that comes from within. But you are welcome to make a living trying

paul d hunt's picture
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Do you care about the shape of your garbage cans?

I guess i’m weird enough that i do. but that’s expected from someone who has an affinity for product design. most people probably just want whatever’s cheapest at wal-mart.

Steve Peter's picture
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I find that garbage cans with pointy bottoms tend to fall over, so yes, I do care about the shape of my garbage can.

Chris Rugen's picture
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I don’t think free fonts are a bad thing. It’s a digital distribution/commerce era we’re entering, so, like music, I think the models of distribution and promotion will have to incorporate new and different methods/ideas. And, really, samples won’t change the minds of those who will and won’t buy.

For me, the real question comes from the distribution of large font collections as add-ons to other products (usually design apps). In this case, the ‘market’ won’t punish them for this behavior. It will, in fact, most likely reward them. What bothers me is that most non-designers I speak with don’t perceive fonts as hard or time-consuming, or as important at all. The fonts aren’t so much ‘free’, as much as they’re just… there.

Now, I am as thrilled as the next person by Adobe’s font offering with InDesign CS, but it removes the choice, and I think the act of having to choose one’s fonts adds perceived value. It forces one to focus on what they want and need. I think this is more key than the presence or absence of money. Imagine if someone chose only novelty fonts with their purchase of MS Office. I think they’d learn the value of the ‘boring’ standbys pretty quickly (I hope). It might even force them to consider the differences, which previously seemed non-existent.

John Hudson's picture
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Andrea wrote: Once again, education is key (and I fail to see how that can be even remotely corporatist).

And Sergej wrote: Corporatism is, in fact, smart business, and I’d say you are a corporatist since you work for a corporation (if I’m not mistaken) and are proud if it.

I think there is some confusion about the use of the term corporatism, not only in this thread but in most contemporary discussion where the term arises. This is because we live in a world with lots of corporations but very little corporatism, so most people look at the word and think it has something to do with corporations as they exist in modern business. Corporation are essentially a mechanism by which the owners of capital limit their personal liability for the decisions they make by making the corporation itself a legal person. Corporatism, arguably and ironically, has more in common with unionism than with corporate capitalism, but at the same time it is neither socialist nor capitalist.

Corporatism is an application of Catholic social teaching, derived from the Papal encyclicals Rerum novarum (1891) and Quadragesimo anno (1931), which attempted to circumvent the conflict of capital and labour by promoting class collaboration based on the dignity of work and collective organisation in part based on the model of the Mediaeval guilds. Under a corporatist system, professional organisations become the primary political organ in a society. In this context, it is easy to see how education can be corporatist, along the lines of apprenticeship and professional accreditation. Most professional associations — e.g. the Society of Graphic Designers of Canada — are, in fact, corporatist bodies, but operating within a non-coporatist system, e.g. capitalism. I think that many professional associations would be more effective if they understood and adopted an explicit, underpinning corporatist philosophy.

Corporatism fell out of favour after WWII because the Italian Fascists had implemented a form of it through their ‘guild’ system. It is worth noting though that the economic historian Amintore Fanfani, later Prime Minister of Italy, had already rejected false corporatism of the fascists in the 1930s. By contrast to fascist dictatorship, corporatism has also appealed to anarcho-syndicalists as a model of collaborative, non-authoritarian organisation and decision making.

Corporatism remains a kind of ideal of Catholic social and political organisaion.

Gerald Lange's picture
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John, who are you frickin talking to?

I like free fonts because, yeah know, they are free. Only difference between them and commercial fonts is how much aggravation are they going to cost me in terms of what is my time worth. While I do support the efforts of a number of the higher end folks of the free font movement, folks, in terms of your time as a designer and typesetter, this •••• is worthless. As worthless as most of the commercial fonts out there.

An old letterpress dude, Lewis Allen, once suggested regarding the acquisition of metal type, “select carefully… inferior tools corrode the spirit.”

John Hudson's picture
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John, who are you frickin talking to?

The people who were talking — at cross purposes, I suspect, for several posts above — about corporatism. Since I know that two of these people are Catholics, it seemed appropriate to clarify what the term ‘corporatism’ more properly describes.

Hank Zane's picture
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Does the availability of free things reduce the perceived value of commercial ones, or can free and commercial things co-exist?

Yes.

James Gareth's picture
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Wasn’t there a similar debate about this before?

Hank Zane's picture
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John, I think you are quoting me out of an appropriate context.

What I originally said about sounding corporatist means what you think it means. But then Dan jumped on the scene and began talking about smart business and I said Well, that is corporatist even from your own point of view. And there is little doubt that Dan and I have different points of view.

So yes, I bow my head. I am guilty of using different meanings in different contexts being completely aware of potential confusion, but this was sort of inevitable and, the difference at it’s core is not as large as I imagine you want us to believe.

I can add that there is no way one can sound elitist having chosen (or been given) a role of a cynical underdog that wants to

Joe Pemberton's picture
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Make of it what you will, but the word “free” is the fifth most
popular search term on Typophile. (I’m referring to search
engine searches and not Typophile.com’s search feature.)

John Butler's picture
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The opposite of elitist is populist, last I checked.

I appreciate the fonts that Adobe bundles with their applications, but I wish they would give the font packages equal billing alongside the programs. e.g. Creative Suite should list its contents as “InDesign, Illustrator, Photoshop, Type Suite CS, and Acrobat.” Or even put Type Suite CS first. [That’s not a real brand, so insert chosen final name there.] How is the customer supposed to even know that those fonts are valuable if the company selling them treats them as an afterthought not worth mentioning on the box? And it’s not like those boxes are short on white space.

The same goes for all those great Font Bureau fonts that MS bundles with Office Professional and Publisher.

Printed specimen pages in the printed manuals—especially ones showing features like SC and OsF, which some users might otherwise not know to look for—would also better convey the value of this stuff.

Héctor Muñoz Huerta's picture
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I can

Yves Peters's picture
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“Yes” to the former or the latter part of the sentence, Sergej? :-)

John Hudson's picture
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Or yes to both parts?

This is really my point: the availability of free things does reduce the perceived value of commercial things, but free and commercial things must co-exist. So the question is how they co-exist.

Hank Zane's picture
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Like an old couple.

John Hudson's picture
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Generally, this is true. The advent of digital technologies has upset old relationships, though. The ease of copying, the fidelity of copies, the speed of exchange: these are all contributing to a devaluation of original creations. When type consisted of trays of metal, there was little doubt to its value as a manufactured item. Type that exists only in the ethereal matter of software is already of diminished perceived value, because it can be copied, multiplied and exchanged so easily. So the impact of free font distribution on the perception of value must be reckoned in addition to an overall reduction in real value (manufacturing costs, wholesale and retail pricing, increased competition, etc.).

Andrea Emery's picture
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‘Does making fonts available for free, no matter the quality, effect those who make their living creating and selling fonts?’

Interestingly enough, this same question can be put to a number of diverse services offered throughout the design community. In effect, we have to ask ourselves if doing work for free is harmful to the design profession (and the consumer)? Overall, I would say “yes, it is”.

In some rare cases, I think it is useful to offer free fonts (free design) for promotion or where a guarantee can be made that future projects and payment will follow. However, I think that for the most part, free equals cheap and most consumers who are downloading free fonts (or getting free design) don’t have the same respect for the work as they would if they had to pay for it. I know that I don’t. I am always suspicious of “free”.

As a member of the Society of Graphic Designers of Canada, I truly believe that designers (of any kind) have a professional duty to educate people and promote the respect of design everywhere. (This might sound elitist, but someone has to take the lead on this). If you are at all curious about the Code of Ethics, you can find it herer: http://www.gdc.net/for_business/ethics.php?id=1&press=1&draw_column=3:1:2 and download it.

Sure, I know that I cannot stop Joe down the block from creating free logos, or worse, selling them for $99 a pop. And if designers want to continue in that vein, as John writes, who am I to stop them? However, I cannot help but feel that giving away or undervaluing design undercuts our professionalism and devalues all our work and when I try to justify charging as much as I do, I have to ensure that the consumer/client understands that “you get what you pay for”.

I also have an issue with the “no matter the quality” bit.