Digitizing old type

antiphrasis's picture

Maybe someone with some experience in this field could offer me a few pointers. I'm curious about the rules when it comes to digitizing od type from let's say the Solotype Catalog. Do you have a right to do it? If so, do you have a right to sell it? And is it common to keep the old name, and include all the facts that you know about the design in the font file? I've found a sub-par digital font of the typeface I'm interested in already, but I would like to make my own, and maybe even sell it if it turns out nicely. Also create some accented characters, currency signs, etc.

Any ideas? Sorry for all the questions.

Thomas Phinney's picture

With regards to the name, it's a question of whether that name is trademarked and owned by somebody. Many of those really old typefaces aren't but that isn't true of all of them. Plus, so many names are in use that some other typeface may have the same name. For example, there's an old ATF face that I'd like to see a revival of. But Monotype has a typeface, issued about 90 years later, with the same name. The later typeface has a current trademark.

With the design, there are both legal and ethical issues. Both of these vary depending on the history and age of the design, and the legal stuff can vary depending on where you are.

None of this should be taken as being legal advice, just some general background info.

The design you're interested in is how old?
What was the original type foundry?
Who has a digital version of it today, and do they claim a trademark on the name?



raph's picture

Again, I'm not a lawyer, but here's my take:

The only real legal issue is with trademarks. There is no legal protection, at least in the US, for typeface designs themselves (with the rare and time-limited exception of design patents). As long as you're doing your own digitization, you can do whatever you like with the font, including sell it.

The ethical issues are a different story altogether. I have been putting some thought into the ethics of typeface revivals, but I imagine others here will disagree, perhaps even sharply.

To me, the main ethical issues to balance are contributing to the pool of quality fonts, and stepping on someone else's moral ownership rights.

Both of these questions can be somewhat murky, but I think there are some clear guidelines.

If the designer of the font is still alive, they have moral ownership rights. For the vast majority of fonts in the Solotype books, the original designer is long gone, and any moral ownership of the design has completely faded. I can imagine some ambiguous cases, such as when there are collaborators who are still living, or when the original font was commissioned by an entity that still exists.

Making a font of exceptional quality is a strong ethical justification. If there is a company selling a crappy digitization, they have relinquished much of their moral ownership rights, regardless of the legal issues. On the flip side, releasing a poor quality font which saps away sales from a foundry which caring lovingly for its revivals is a bad thing.

If the digital version available today is put out by a reputable foundry, then I think the friendly thing to do would be to offer them first refusal on your digitization. That way, everybody benefits, not least the users of the face.

If the name is available, by all means keep it. In any case, give as much attribution as possible. I'm not sure how important it is to stuff that in the font file itself though.

As you can probably tell, I'm struggling with some of the same questions myself. I'm trying to make a digital version of the original metal Centaur. While it's intimidating to try to do justice to a typeface of this magnitude and importance, I feel that the outlines I have drawn so far are much better than the current digital version, and in any case I absolutely love working with such beautiful letterforms. It goes slowly for a number of reasons, but I'm hopeful that eventually it will be seen as a real contribution.

In any case, best of luck!

Thomas: what ATF face are you thinking of, if I may ask?

hrant's picture

> If the designer of the font is still alive,
> they have moral ownership rights.

To me, being alive is not enough - he also has to be a reasonable member of society. If he's a decrepit old loonie who's squatting on something nice, unwilling to either work on it himself or allow others to, then freely ignore him. Unless you owe him a favor or something.


antiphrasis's picture

Thanks for all the replies guys. I knew I could count on you!

Thomas: The typeface that I'm interested in digitizing is an old display face from what I believe the 1800's. And I have to confess I don't know much at all about the typeface or its whereabouts. For those who have Dan X. Solo's Solotype Catalog of 4,147 Display Faces it can be found on page 116 and it's named Victorian Stencil. It's a rather charming ornamental stencil face with a western feel to it. I've checked several online font outlets and none has a font with the same name, and I didn't find anything while Googling either. (I'd be happy to make a scan and post it here.)

The digital version that I've seen is done by Jeff Levine and can be found at Dafont.com (named Maverick). And I wouldn't really want to be inspired by this digitization too much. But the problem is that that the Solotype Catalog does not have the full character set.

Stephen: I checked out all the Solotype fonts on Myfonts and this one wasn't there. Anybody know the names of all the fonts that came with the Dover CD's?

Ralph: Thanks! I believe that the creator if this typeface is long gone, but I don't have any information to collaborate this with. And Dan X. Solo doesn't seem to be in business any longer so it might hard to find out any more information about Victorian Stencil. I like the name, it's very suitable so I'd probably keep it. So it might be a good idea to try to contact Jeff Levine and see if he'd mind be digitazing the font, and see if he has any more information about the history of the typeface?

Thanks again!

gargoyle's picture

Scroll down to Solotype on Luc's Celtic/Gaelic fonts page for what appears to be a fairly comprehensive listing of Dan X. Solo's digital fonts (including the non-Celtic/Gaelic ones). Victorian Stencil is not among them.

gargoyle's picture

You might also want to consider a different name, since "'Victorian' is a trademark of Esselte-Letraset Ltd."

antiphrasis's picture


Good point. But if the name of the font was the full "Victorian Stencil" and not Victorian with style stencil. You'd think it'd be hard for them to enforce that since Victorian is a time period, but you never know with some of these companies. Thanks for heads-up!

gargoyle's picture

Lauri -- your train of thought mirrors mine: it probably shouldn't be an issue, but these days it seems you can't be too careful.

antiphrasis's picture


You're right. Maybe I should change the name. Thanks for the links, those are some pretty frivolous cases... A name change could be justified if I don't find a full character set (not counting Maverick) and have to create some of the letters myself. That way I'd feel more comfortable naming the font since I contributed more. I wonder if Victorian Stencil was based on another non-stencil font or if it only came in a stencil version. I'll probably post in the type id section tomorrow to see if Mike, Mark, or any of the others recognize it.


antiphrasis's picture

Here's a scan of the Victorian Stencil sample I have:

It seems to be (pretty loosely) based on Soubrette:

I can see many small inconsistencies between these two typefaces, and there is a big weight difference as well. Soubrette is a wonderful name for font. Maybe I should consider making a non-stencil version as well, but then I wouldn't be able to use "Victorian" as Justin pointed out.


hrant's picture

Soubrette is indeed a great name for this! Even better might be an Italian equivalent to that term, since this is a "Tuscan" design.

BTW, I think you can do much better than that Victorian Stencil, which uses quite a crude approach in its stencil gaps - some of that Tuscan floriation where the cuts are would be much nicer.


antiphrasis's picture


Yeah, Soubrette is a reall nice sounding word, with an interesting meaning. But alas, it seems be taken. There's a script font available at this free font site with that name already. Not sure if it's commercial or not. It seems to be copyrighted to Brendel Informatik GmbH.

Good idea about the stencil gaps. I will probably modify them a little bit. I didn't know that this was a Tuscan design, so thanks for that tidbit. All this talk about Tuscan makes me want to eat some real Italian food, not the bland American Italian variety. :-)


antiphrasis's picture

Here's a link to my post in the critique section where I will post updates of my digitizing effort. Please have a look: Tuscan Stencil (untitled so far). Thanks!

jordy's picture

I think that the important issue re revivals is the quality of the work that you do on it. I too am not an attorney so I can't speak to the legal issues except to say that I follow along with Ralph's ideas. I looked at your Tuscan Stencil from the critique section and it looks fine, not wanting to go into detail here. However, the issue of quality of rendering is very important to me. If you take a look at the dreadful job Jeff Levine has done (it's a freebie) you will know immediately what I mean. There is no substitute for hard work in creating or re-creating a good type font. If you're gonna do, do it right!

jordy's picture

sorry - I did not intend to post my message 5 times! Talk about doing it right or wrong! How do I get rid of 4 of these? Or can an administrator do this?

antiphrasis's picture


Thanks for all the replies. An administrator will erase all those messages for you. I will be spending lots of time on the typeface, so any comments on the progress is appreciated. Yeah, I'm aware of Levine's Maverick and its apparent creation process; scan, autotrace, and simplify paths.


scripsit's picture

You look like you're having a good time with this project. Good for you. I thought you might like a little more background into Tuscan letterforms. Perhaps some of the following will spark ideas in the naming process.

Keep in mind that "Tuscan" is not the nationality, but merely the style classification. Of course, that doesn't mean an Italian name wouldn't be appropriate. Tuscan was a Victorian lettering term used to describe an ornate style of capitals with bifurcated serif treatments. A slang term that was used for this kind of serif was "fish-tail" serif.

Tuscan letterforms were immensely popular throughout the Victorian era and used on literally everything: trains, storefronts, book covers, you name it. It was a favorite for poster work of all kinds, especially circus and wanted posters. Due to its popularity and application in an era where hand-lettering was the standard, there were literally hundreds of personalized variations on the theme, and there were no bounds to their ornate treatment.

The two 19th-century display types most associated with the Old West are the French Clarendon and the decorated Tuscans. Typographically, Tuscans became most popular in wood-type (which were popular in frontier printing for many reasons). An interesting little side note to this: Many frontier printers, being artisans and craftsmen, would often take the larger wooden type characters from a Clarendon font and shape them with whittling knives, cutting notches and shaping corners to contrive new designs.

Since it would have been very unlikely to see Tuscan face as a stencil, this aspect is more a stylistic treatment. So I think that Hrant's advice of finessing the "cut gaps" is excellent. I like the direction you're going with it so far.

Since your counters are fairly open (not always common in Tuscans), you might consider making the "medial spurs" bilateral throughout the alphabet. Doing so was the most common approach. Although handling the "medial spurs" as a unilateral design, or removing them altogether was also done. But as the designers of that time discovered, by doing the "medial spurs" bilaterally each character not only has a better symmetrical consistency, but they create an optical connectedness throughout a line of characters.

Keep up the good work; and have fun!


antiphrasis's picture


Thank you for all the information. I didn't know that much about Tuscans before I started working on my project. I love the term "fish-tail" serif; I can totally see a fish tail as the serif. :)

Can anybody suggest a good book or website with examples of Tuscan typefaces? I've been digging around and haven't found that much... A Dover book with Tuscan fonts would be perfect.

Thanks for all the tips!

jordy's picture

I really hate plugging my own site but you can find some Tuscan fonts there http://www.woodentypefonts.com - of course the best book on wood type, with a lot of info on Tuscan stuff, etc., is still Rob Roy Kelly's "American Wood Type: 1828-1900." The book is out of print, but check out eBay for it. I don't know of a book about Tuscan fonts per se.


oldnick's picture

You might want to take a look at this typeface.

Also, a few points of clarification: Dan X. Solo is still very much in business. He has branched out into digital typefaces, and has a growing collection of fonts based on items from his old Solotype catalog.

And, if you have read the romance copy in the old Solotype catalog, you know that none of the designs were created by Mr. Solo, but were gathered from various sources from around the globe.

antiphrasis's picture


Thanks, I appreciate the link a lot. I've seen some of your fonts on MyFonts before... I love the slabs and Clarendons (Antique Six in particular). Tuscan Egyptian is really awesome; I wasn't really aware of lowercase letters with all the bells and whistles. I love the quirkiness of old wood type

I wasn't able to find the book you mentioned on Amazon or eBay. Alibris has to book, but it's $115... so I'll have to wait until I see it on eBay.

Keep up the good work!

antiphrasis's picture


Thanks for the link. I became aware of your digitalization of Victorian Stencil around a week ago (a fellow Typophile e-mailed me). You did a great job with it too! But since you filled the void, I think I will try something a little bit different. I'm currently working on a Tuscan (non-stencil) typeface that is loosely based on Victorian Stencil. I might create a stencil version of this font as well. But we'll see how it turns out. :)

Stephen Coles's picture

Keep in mind that Solotype has digitized some of the type from
his own collection. I'm not sure what this means legally.

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