Laws in the People's Republic of China allow anyone to copy Microsoft software (and many other things) without paying for a license. Ironically, the laws of the United States allow the same thing when it comes to font designs.
For many years, copyright laws in the U.S. and some other countries have excluded the designs of new fonts -- even ones that have taken skilled artists months or years to create from scratch. As a result, hucksters have made copies of valuable fonts and sold them with little more than a change to the fonts' names (which are the only things that happen to be protected under separate trademark laws).
As I reported in this space last week, this kind of copying may be coming to an end. A few years ago, a U.S. court ruled that the computer code of Adobe fonts could not be copied and sold under different names by other companies. Now Microsoft has lost a decision by a European agency, which says the new user-interface fonts in Windows Vista and Office 2007 cannot be registered as unique designs because they are nearly identical to another company's fonts.
In an exclusive interview that I report on below, the designer of the Vista fonts states that they are not copied or adapted from other fonts.
This is shaping up as a defining moment that may impact the way copyright protection is granted to all kinds of software, font or otherwise.
When copying (font) software is illegal
I quoted last week from the European Union's Design Department, which states that Microsoft's various weights of Segoe UI "differ only in minor details" from Frutiger Next, a design by Linotype. I also quoted Microsoft representatives, who flatly maintained: "Segoe was not derived from Frutiger."
Since Microsoft wants copyright protection to be respected in countries like China, it weakens the software giant's argument if it's believed to be copying font designs -- even though such copying may be legal in the U.S. That gives the Segoe/Frutiger case a significance far beyond the fonts themselves.
Despite Microsoft's denials, font experts insist that Segoe must have been created by copying Frutiger's basic letterforms, if not the font family's actual computer code. For example, Bill Troop, a contributor to Typophile, a font designer's discussion forum, wrote on March 22:
"In the case of Segoe, it is obvious that the font was created either by directly appropriating and manipulating the digital data with the intent of disguising not the design but the origination of the data points, or it was created by tracing over the outlines with the intention of matching them exactly but creating new data points."
In my column last week, I included enlarged samples of both Segoe (pronounced "see go") and Frutiger Next. I noted that the two type families are almost identical, except for a few individual letters, such as I and Q, which have longer horizontal strokes in Segoe than in Frutiger.
I contacted one long-time critic of Microsoft's font practices, Ulrich Stiehl. In an e-mail exchange, he asserts that these small changes were added to the Segoe design only after similarities between it and Frutiger were publicized.
Referring to the image of the capital letter Q that I am reproducing here, the character on the left shows "the old Segoe UI font with 'copyright' 1997-2003," Stiehl says. "To the right, the new Segoe UI font with 'copyright' 2005... The old Segoe UI 'Q' was drawn and forged from the old Frutiger font."
Stiehl is a German citizen who recently retired from a European law book publishing house. He asked that the firm not be identified by name since it is not related to his criticism of Microsoft. He maintains a Web site on alleged font copying, providing extensive documentation, most of which is in English.
Monotype and Steve Matteson respond
After examining both font families in detail, there's no question in my mind that the Segoe font is not an exact copy of the Frutiger family but does exhibit slight differences. The question is whether these differences will be enough to insulate Microsoft from further legal problems when the Redmond company starts selling Windows Vista, which is now in beta testing.
Microsoft asserted in my column last week that sales of Vista would not be affected by the European agency's decision. In any case, I was told, Segoe was originally developed by Agfa Monotype in 2000 and Microsoft acquired a legitimate license to use the fonts in 2003.
Surprisingly, when I contacted Agfa Monotype, which changed its name in 2004 to Monotype Imaging, the company's spokeswoman wouldn't confirm or deny that it had licensed Segoe to Microsoft or even that it had developed the font in the first place.
"Our legal counsel has instructed me and others in the company, that because our contracts contain confidentiality provisions, we're unable to make any comments on the subject at this time," stated Vikki Quick, a marketing and public relations executive for Monotype Imaging.
The developer of the Segoe typeface family, who worked for Monotype at the time, is widely acknowledged to be Steve Matteson, a type designer based in Michigan. In a series of e-mail exchanges, he provided me with the following statements:
"Initially Microsoft asked my team to make various changes to the original Segoe fonts, extending them to a large pan-European character set (adding Greek and Cyrillic for example) as well as creating new weights and a true italic. After review on screen under ClearType at small sizes, Microsoft asked us to update several dozen characters in Segoe UI in order for them to produce better letter shapes on screen. This included the Q and & [ampersand] ...
"Taking your question literally -- 'Did you or someone at Monotype observe the Frutiger fonts and adapt any of the features of those fonts while developing any versions of Segoe?' -- the answer is no.
"If you meant to ask -- 'Did I or anyone at Monotype modify the design of Segoe UI after the similarity with Frutiger was first spotted by a commentator on the Web?' -- the answer is the Segoe fonts continue to evolve prior to and following the first time someone pointed out similarities between the fonts on their Web site. In fact today I just finished redrawing the dagger. Changes were made based on testing and on-screen appearance issues. Although the effect of these changes may have been to move the design even further away from Frutiger that's just a side-effect of continued improvement."
Where Microsoft goes from here
While the Segoe IU font clearly has details that differ from Frutiger, Microsoft and Monotype are dogged by questions because of previous fonts the two companies have worked on.
For example, according to type designer Frederick Nader, the font named Arial that ships in Windows 3.1 and higher is so close to Helvetica, a Linotype design, that the width of every character is identical. A font named Book Antiqua, very similar to Linotype's Palatino, was later bundled with Microsoft Office and Windows 98. The Redmond company eventually licensed the latter font, and a legitimate copy -- bearing its official name, Palatino Linotype -- has appeared in every version of Microsoft's operating system since Windows 2000.
Since the turnaround on Palatino, Microsoft has seemed to be a good corporate citizen on font design. For instance, the Redmond company in 2000 formally licensed the Frutiger family from Linotype for use in the Microsoft Reader e-book software. It's entirely possible that this license, in fact, might allow Microsoft to adapt Frutiger for use in Windows Vista. If so, why all the controversy?
One explanation is provided by John Hudson, another contributor to Typophile. He notes that the Frutiger license for the Reader software -- as well as the development, which he participated in, of several new non-Segoe fonts in Windows Vista -- was the responsibility of Microsoft's Advanced Reading Technologies (ART) group. Segoe UI was commissioned from Monotype by Microsoft Typography, he says, a separate group with its own funding and mission.
What does Linotype itself have to say about all this? "We have decided to initiate an official press release, which will be prepared and released during the next month," Linotype spokeswoman Fabrice Dissieux e-mailed me on April 24. "Therefore, at present, I unfortunately cannot give you any statement concerning the subject." I'd guess Linotype's response needs approval from several company attorneys. We'll just have to wait.
It's up to the lawyers now to let us know whether Segoe UI has a future in Windows Vista and Office 2007.
Hopefully, out of this morass will come a better legal definition of how copyright should protect software authors and whether font software should be treated any differently.