Ethical boundaries of typeface revivals

altsan's picture

I know this topic is far from new here, but I'm trying to figure out what consensus there is on this issue, if any, amongst type designers and professional type consumers. As someone who is just trying to get started in the trade, I'm anxious to get a feel for the acceptable boundaries.

Where does one draw the line between a legitimate revival, and a deplorable knockoff? I know the legal rules, more or less - in North America at least, typeface design is not protected by copyright (but can be protected by design patent to a limited extent), whereas specific digital implementations are protected. But I've seen a lot of talk here on Typophile effectively equating cloning with piracy. If I can't judge the distinction based on legal terms, what are the generally accepted moral terms? Or is there no consensus at all?

Is the critical factor whether or not the original designer is still alive? Or is it my own motivation in creating the revival - an attempt to provide something which I feel is legitimately lacking, versus an opportunistic attempt to undercut an existing product on the cheap? The second point seems awfully subjective, since there's no sure-fire way somebody else's motivations.

I realize that these and other factors must probably be weighed together, but it does make things a bit difficult for me in deciding what I should consider off-limits.

To provide a concrete example... earlier this year, I read in a text on type design that it can be a good learning exercise for a starting designer to try taking samples of a metal type and creating a digital font out of it. I was looking at some old twentieth-century samples of metal-type Centaur being used as a book face, and it occurred to me that I've never seen a digital version that comes close to it (they're all too thin and spidery, and oddly sterile to boot). So I picked up a copy of The Centaur Types and began trying to create a new implementation of Centaur that had something of the same flavour as found in the pages of that book - more substantial letters, more relaxed spacing, and less of a harsh "crispness" in print.

Well, it's come far enough that I can use it for my own printing tasks, and I'm actually pleasantly surprised at the results. The question is... what can I do with it, ethically speaking? (Oddly enough, I ran across Raph Levien's old thread on the same topic a few weeks ago...) Bruce Rogers, the designer, has been dead for more than 50 years, so even if design was copyrightable, it would have expired by now (at least in Canada where I live). It is also patently not an attempt to simply clone any of the existing digital Centaurs that I'm aware of. Would it be more ethically acceptable to (a) keep it as a purely personal trinket and not make it public at all; (b) Make it available free under the OFL or some other free license; or (c) Try and develop it to commercial quality and sell it?

As a different example, I've also been looking at a rather nice old Frederic Goudy design called "Goudy Lanston". This one doesn't seem to have any digital versions at all (that I've been able to find, at least)... but I do notice that P22 seems to hold a trademark on the name, which may imply that they're planning to make one eventually. Should I leave well alone, or play around with making my own digital version?

hrant's picture

{To Follow}

5star's picture

It's to bad you're not a creative person.


Nick Shinn's picture

No doubt the pendulum will swing, but there is presently just one serifed typeface in the MyFonts top fifty, and it’s not a revival.
What you are interested in is the preserve of antiquarian hobbyists.
I would recommend you design an original sans serif or a rough, hand-drawn script based on your doodle style.

John Hudson's picture

The two designs you speak of are well out of any legal consideration, other than trademark. There's nothing to stop you making and releasing new digital versions of either Centaur or Goudy Lanston, and I don't see any ethical issue either. Even if there were strong copyright protection for typeface design, these would now be in the public domain.

You'll get snide comments about your lack of creativity or being an antiquarian hobbyist, but font manufacture, which is what you are talking about, is a craft, and there is no obligation to creative originality, only to doing a good job. An historic revival might not sell well, as Nick notes, but as you note there is still no good digital version of Centaur for text. If you find it pleasing and useful, that strikes me as reason enough to make one, so long as you are not kidding yourself that you will get rich from it.

Nick Shinn's picture

Well, perhaps “hobbyist” was a bit strong, but that, I think, would be the consensus—and addresses Alex’s concern over professional reputation rather than legalities. Revivals of classic serif faces have been undertaken by type designers in the digital era (indeed, it was a feature of the early days), but the vein has now been mined out and the interest is in new designs.

Hiding away or giving away one’s work would seem to suggest something not quite right about it.

Alex, as an antiquarian (which many type designers, myself included, are—it comes with the territory), and interested in doing a revival, why not do a sans? Vogue, for instance, a 1930s American Futura clone.

If you intend to publish your Centaur revival, be aware that it is a revival of a revival, and while there may not presently be a good text Centaur, there are many good Jensons. Also, I wouldn’t be surprised if Monotype were to publish a book version of Centaur, as they did with Bembo.

altsan's picture

@Nick & John, very good points. In my current phase, I'm mostly interested in book and document faces. For me that mostly means old style or transitional serifs. It's not that I'm uninterested in display types, but there's something about book text that I find compelling.

In fact, all the fonts I designed prior to my Suzuran concept work were sans-serifs. I won't delude myself into thinking they're particularly good, and they certainly aren't particularly original; they were designed for specific purposes within fairly narrow parameters. But I am interested in expanding into serif types, hence these experiments.

I also figured it might be a useful way of getting my feet wet, so to speak. How can I move into creating original and innovative types if I don't have an intimate understanding of how existing types work and fit together?

One reason Centaur (the book version) in particular fascinated me is how it consciously uses irregularities and imperfections as part of its charm. Adobe Jenson and Cloister also do this up to a point, but Centaur really takes the concept and runs with it. It has an almost intimate feel to it, in spite of its elegance.

Joshua Langman's picture

"… and while there may not presently be a good text Centaur …"

I think that's reason enough right there! I say, full speed ahead! I would buy it.

David Vereschagin's picture

Don’t let the cautionary remarks keep you from this project. As John Hudson notes there is no legal reason you can’t go ahead with it. And I think working on a new cut (I wouldn’t call this a revival, as digital versions of Centaur already exist) of an existing face would be an excellent way to begin learning type design as you plumb the ins and outs of the face.

On top of all that, I, too, would be interested in seeing a new version of Centaur.

altsan's picture

Thanks for the advice, everyone.

I guess I'll start a new thread for my Centaur revival in the Critique/Serif forum. (Or would it be better here in Design, given that it's not an original?) Might be a few days before I get organized enough.

eliason's picture

Critique/Serif is the right place

oldnick's picture


And it's TOO bad you're such an ignorant putz, but I hear tell that Capitalism can rot the brain, so it's probably not your fault that you're such a maroon.

As an inveterate revivalist myself, I find the practice a noble calling. Resurrecting engaging designs and bringing them into the Digital Age exposes young whippersnappers to the great designers of the past. In all of my efforts, I always give credit where credit is due. And even revivals present opportunities for your own creative input. When I made a digital version of Stephenson Blake's Glenmoy, I took exception with some of the original letterforms, and revised the /p/ and /x/ characters so that they were more to my liking (and, presumably, more attractive to type buyers). So, if you can improve or expand a venerable workhorse, go for it. Just make sure that whatever you name your efforts doesn't violate one of Berthold's trademarks...

charles ellertson's picture

Asking the Typohile crew about revivals is sort of like asking the Fox News crew about social justice...

hrant's picture

Did you actually read the opinions above?


Maxim Zhukov's picture

I, too, would be interested in seeing a new version of Centaur.

I for one am mystified as to how those three-quarter height figures used in Venetian 301—the Bitstream clone of Monotype Centaur—ever came about… They are actually pretty useful.

altsan's picture

OK, thread created:

@hrant: Coincidentally, I was just looking at Satyr. It is a really nice face, and uses many of the stylistic elements that so fascinate me about Centaur.

Nick Shinn's picture

… I took exception with some of the original letterforms …

You’re in good company.
Rogers’ revival of “Jenson” removed a couple of serifs on /M, among other things.

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