[Scribus] Response from the FSF about GPL fonts

Louis Desjardins louis_desjardins
Wed Apr 20 18:58:31 CEST 2005


I have contacted the Free Software Foundation, responsible for the GPL, 
and asked them to clarify their position. Please find here my post with 
the answers in between.

I post this with the consent of the author. Again, I understand this is 
not an issue exclusively related to Scribus but I think the thread has 
nonetheless drawn enough attention and interest so I would at least put 
this reply on the list for all to read.


On Tue, 2005-04-19 at 13:28 -0400, Louis Desjardins via RT wrote:

 >> A recent discussion about font management on the Scribus list 
brought up
 >> the following thread from one of the participant:
 >> "[...] it is note worthy to point out that using gpl licensed fonts
 >> in a document makes the document a derived work of the font and
 >> therefore, subject to the gpl."
 >> This assertion immediately raised questions. One of which being what 
 >> the source of that information. It became clear this issue is to be
 >> considered as serious, as it is established on your website.
 >> The main concern is how a font can contamitate a publication, or to 
 >> extent exactly? In other words, what does that mean, exactly, for
 >> someone using GPL fonts to create a document with a DTP app such as
 >> Scribus? Are there different issues when the work is intended to be
 >> printed and distributed in its paper form or when the same work will be
 >> sent out or made available as a PDF, and whether this PDF has some
 >> interactive functionnality or not (such as a form to be filled, or
 >> external web links, internal links and the like), and whether the fonts
 >> are embedded or not?

The situation we were considering is one where a font "program" is
embedded in a document (rather than merely referenced).  This would
allow a document to be viewed as the author intended it even on machines
that didn't have the font.

So, the document file (a work) would be derived from the font file
(another work).  The text of the document, of course, would be
unrestricted when distributed without the font.

We were unhappy with even this amount of influence for fonts, because
(a) it's rarely what font authors intend and (b) it's possible that some
applications do embedding behind the user's back.  The situation seemed
to me to be similar to the case of the runtime libraries which GCC
automatically includes in its output (and which are licensed to permit
inclusion in proprietary software).  So, I wrote the font exception you
see on our web site.  It's experimental; we're sure it's not perfect,
and we welcome comments.

In the US, as I understand it, font faces -- that is, the look of a
font, are not copyrightable.  But font "programs" (truetype fonts, for
example) are.  I don't know how font copyright works in other countries.
So, printed documents should not be affected in the US.

 >> As a user, do we have to worry about using fonts release under the GPL?
 >> Can this cause a client's work (provided we use Scribus to layout his
 >> job with GPL fonts and possibly along with commercial fonts, all this
 >> work being done as a living and thus we get paid to do it) to be 
 >> to be released under the GPL? If so, why then use GPL fonts?

We wrote the exception you see on our web site explicitly to handle this
case.  Note that you need to always check the license on your fonts in
any case; proprietary fonts often have onerous licensing requirements.

 >> The existence on your web site of an add-on to the GPL specifically
 >> aimed at font usage makes me think it is considered by the FSF as a 
 >> issue that have to solved. Something unthought of when the licence was
 >> first written.

I don't know if Richard thought about it back in 1989 and 1991.  I
rather doubt it.  We're thinking about it now, and we welcome
suggestions.  The GPL was intended for general software; fonts don't
really fit into this category.  They're used fundamentally differently
than most software.  But people have used the GPL for fonts, and we
wanted to offer these people a way out of a situation which they
probably didn't intend.

 >> And Freedom has not much to
 >> do with the fear of being sued for violating someone's rights. I mean,
 >> isn't this all made to facilitate sharing and not the opposite? Whether
 >> these fonts will be used in non-commercial or commercial elements is
 >> something that will be, in my opinion, very difficult to actually 

I've never heard of anyone being sued for embedding a GPL-licensed font.
In fact, the total number of lawsuits over violations of the GPL is
tiny.  Usually, these things are resolved by negotiation.

As long as we're using a licensing approach to keeping Free Software
free, there will be the possibility of going to court.  But it's a
remote possibility, because it's easier and better to just talk to
people.  Some people may be surprised to hear this from an American
organization, but we're happy with our approach, and we recommend it to
nearly everyone.

 >> Another consideration is if we consider that one can call
 >> "redistribution" of a font (any font) the fact that it is embedded in a
 >> PDF file (and this PDF file is accessible on the Internet). I also
 >> wonder what kind of tools are needed to actually extract the font (if
 >> this is feasible) and reuse it in its original form? Who can do that,
 >> other than programming professionnals?

Well, once a programmer creates an extractor, anyone can use it.
Extraction is, in my view, the major issue that a license must confront.
Because I haven't been able to come up with a license which correctly
handles embedding and extraction in all cases, we've restricted this to
unaltered fonts.  This means that someone can't use embedding as a way
to distribute a modified version of a font under restrictive terms.  If
you have suggestions for how to write a license which better handles
extraction, please let us know.  As I've said, we haven't given this as
much thought as we've given some of the other issues involved in free

 >> If this all proves to be as posted on the Scribus list and as cited on
 >> top of my message, then is it possible to make a clear statement about
 >> this issue so people will actually use the text you provide and include
 >> it in their licence so users can make a legal use of these fonts, 
 >> to what is known and understood as legal use by a vast majority of
 >> people and professionnals? Or maybe you can include this text in 
 >> version of the GPL? In anyway, I think this needs to be clarified. To
 >> the benefit of Open Source in general.

Please feel free to forward this to the Scribus list.  I'm not
subscribed to the list, and I unfortunately don't have time to read a
long thread about this.  So, if the Scribus list has further questions,
it would be helpful if they could be discussed on the list, then sent
here as a batch.

-- -Dave Turner GPL Compliance Engineer Support my work: 

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