dot-font: The Challenges of Cross-Cultural Typography

The first international type-design competition ever sponsored by ATypI (Association Typographique Internationale) celebrates 2001 as the United Nations’ “Year of Dialogue among Civilizations.” The gesture is ATypI’s own small contribution to the intercultural exchange, and because of its cross-cultural nature, the competition focuses explicitly on alphabets and scripts of all kinds from around the world.

The competition will be judged in Moscow next winter, and the judges were chosen from a variety of typographic and cultural traditions. Maxim Zhukov, the organizer of this millennial competition, gave it its playful name: in Russian, “bukva:raz!” means “letter:one!” Zhukov himself has been instrumental in advising on the continuing line of Cyrillic adaptations that International Typeface Corporation (ITC) has released over many years — authorized extensions of popular ITC faces, generally done by the designers at ParaType in Moscow.

The global focus of “bukva:raz!” has raised some difficult questions about appropriate and inappropriate use of someone else’s type design. The questions spring partly from inherent difficulties in bridging typefaces across cultures.

Mixing Alphabets
We get used to thinking of type in the context of the alphabet we read and write, but there’s more than one alphabetical script used in the world’s languages — and lots of non-alphabetical scripts, too. Mixing languages on a page is sometimes more difficult than just running parallel columns of English and German, or including the occasional French phrase in italics.

What do you do, as a typographer, when you need to mix typefaces from two different alphabets? A very traditional example might be a passage of text in English with a few lines quoted from Greek. The two scripts are not alike, even though they share a few letters. (If it’s classical Greek, there are a host of diacritical marks to accompany the letters themselves; if it’s modern Greek, most of those disappear.) The typeface of the Greek text ought to harmonize with the typeface of the English (Latin-alphabet) text — either by looking so similar that they fit together as neatly as the roman and italic of a Latin typeface, or by having such obvious contrast that they stand out as distinct from each other.

One approach is discussed by Robert Bringhurst in “The Elements of Typographic Style” — to choose types designed by the same person, even if they’re quite different, on the assumption that they’ll share an underlying philosophy and spirit.

The other approach is to use a typeface family that includes not only Latin typefaces but also Greek. There aren’t a lot of these, but there are several — some of them quite good. (Two of them were winners in the TDC2 competition this year: Gary Munch‘s Really and Robert Slimbach‘s Warnock Pro.) Presumably, all of the glyphs in these type families have been designed by the same person, or else under the supervision or with the collaboration of the designer.

Marketing Derivatives
There are, however, a lot of unauthorized extensions of existing typefaces. In Russia, for instance, and the other countries that use the Cyrillic alphabet, it has become quite common for type designers to take a favorite Western typeface and design their own characters to match them. Since the modern Cyrillic alphabet, like the Greek, includes letters that overlap with those in the Latin alphabet — “a,” for instance — you could logically expect that a Cyrillic version of Helvetica would use the regular Helvetica “a.” But that “a” is part of a typeface designed by a particular person or team of people, and marketed and sold by a particular type manufacturer, and licensed by them to other vendors, over a period of decades. Swiping that “a” without asking is, quite simply, theft. It may be well-meaning theft, but it’s not right.

Other non-Latin scripts may not overlap with the Latin alphabet, but they borrow from the design of the original typeface. It’s not unusual to find, say, Hebrew, Arabic, or Armenian typefaces that are based on well-known Latin originals. With a non-alphabetic script, like Thai or Chinese, the connection is less direct.

Even more disturbing is the practice of simply including the Latin alphabet of a copied typeface as part of the digital font that includes a non-Latin version. If the resulting font is given away as a free download, then it cuts into the potential sales of the original typeface; if it is sold without permission (and without recompense to the original designer), then it’s direct theft.

Copying typefaces with slight changes is, unfortunately, very common, and it always has been. Type manufacturers have been imitating each other’s offerings since the earliest days of handset type — for the obvious reason that there’s always a demand. Today we try to regulate this borrowing and require those who benefit from other people’s work to pay them for it. It’s called copyright. But in the field of typeface design, copyright protection is extremely murky; it varies from country to country, and the United States has never really given copyright protection to typefaces. So there may sometimes be quite a discrepancy between what’s legal and what’s right.

Dialogue Among Typefaces
In setting the rules for entering the “bukva:raz!” competition, Maxim Zhukov tried to make a clear distinction between typeface designs that are original and those that are derivative, that are based on or growing out of an existing design by someone else. The overall principle is easy enough to describe, but drawing the lines has been extremely difficult.

After consulting with a number of type designers and typographers, Zhukov decided to distinguish fonts using three classifications — original designs, typeface revivals, and derivative designs.

The distinction between an original design and a revival can’t be pinned down with mathematical precision. How many typefaces are not, to some extent, “inspired by, or based upon, historical models”? This is a serious question. Some typefaces would get the nod from us all as “original,” no matter what historical references or inspiration they might have, and some others would strike us all as obviously derivative; but discerning exactly where the line between them falls… Ah, there’s the rub! There is no clean, clear, consistent way to draw that line. This doesn’t make the question moot; it just means we shouldn’t expect a definitive answer.

When it comes to “derivative designs” that are not historical revivals, the line is somewhat easier to draw. If you create an extension to an existing typeface, your design is clearly derivative, and you must ask the permission of the original designer or the copyright holder for permission to extend the typeface. It’s much like deciding that you want to write a sequel to someone else’s novel, or create a variation on another artist’s painting. The original belongs to the originator, and that person should have the right to permit or prevent the creation of new works based directly on the original.

Of course, even here history makes a difference. If you’d like to write a sequel to “War and Peace,” would you have to seek out the heirs of Tolstoy and ask their permission, more than a century after the fact? I doubt it. But if you wanted to write a sequel to, say, “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” then Tom Wolfe would have his legal say.

The requirement in “bukva:raz!” is that anyone designing a historical revival must acknowledge and show the origins of the typeface, and that anyone designing a derivative typeface must do the same and also get explicit permission from the original designer. If you’re designing a new version of John Baskerville‘s types, nobody expects you to conduct a séance to ask permission of Baskerville’s ghost. If, however, you want to copy a 20th-century Baskerville revival such as Monotype Baskerville, you’d better have a little conversation with Agfa Monotype first. More to the point, if you want to design a Cyrillic typeface based on Monotype Baskerville, you must get permission first — and also, by the way, check to see if perhaps it’s already been done. (It has.)

Drawing the Line
Creating harmonious typeface families and extending them into more than one alphabetic script is an excellent thing to do. The idea behind “bukva:raz!” — one of them, anyway — is to encourage and recognize this sort of cross-cultural creativity. It is important, however, that creativity not extend to piracy.

Posted on: March 9, 2001

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