The great knock-off font swindle

When Apple launched Mac OS X, they made a big thing about its typographical capabilities. To show off the new type rendering engine, they licensed and bundled…

More than $1,000 of the best fonts available today, including Baskerville, Herman Zapf’s Zapfino, Futura, and Optima; as well as the highest-quality Japanese fonts available, in the largest character set ever on a personal computer.

It’s interesting to contrast this with Microsoft’s approach. Back when they launched Windows, they needed some fonts too. Since every laser printer on the planet (and most non-laser printers) had Helvetica and Times in, it would have been really useful if Windows had had Helvetica too. Macintoshes at the time shipped with Times and Helvetica, and it enabled them to display on screen a reasonable facsimile of what you would get on printout.

Of course, doing what Apple had done and actually licensing the fonts wasn’t an option. Bill Gates didn’t get to be as rich as he is today by paying people for the use of their intellectual property. Instead, Microsoft got a couple of knock-off fonts made by Monotype that were close enough—Times New Roman and Arial. In the case of Arial, the emulation was painstaking, right down to using the exact same character and stroke widths for every symbol.

Much the same happened with Microsoft Office. Microsoft saw a font they rather liked—Hermann Zapf’s Palatino—so they called in Monotype to make a quick copy. The result was named Book Antiqua, and bundled with Office.

Unlike Helvetica, however, Palatino was a wholly original design by a living designer. Hermann Zapf got rather angry, and Microsoft agreed to license Palatino retrospectively.

With Microsoft, history has a way of repeating itself. The forthcoming (some day) Windows Vista has a font called Segoe, used for all user interface elements. Microsoft recently filed for a visual trademark on Segoe, to try and ensure that nobody else would be able to use the font in their logotypes or software. Because, you know, everyone wants the caché of looking like Windows.

Unfortunately, some spoilsports at Linotype noticed that Segoe (as shipped in the Vista betas) was almost identical to the font Frutiger Next, designed in 1997 by Adrian Frutiger for use on signage in Munich. Microsoft had tweaked the tail on the ‘Q’, added a baseline to the ’1′, left everything else identical, and then filed for a trademark as if the font was their own original design.

The European Union denied the application. Microsoft attempted to appeal, arguing that Linotype hadn’t actually sold Frutiger Next. Unfortunately, Frutiger is a very popular font, and the evidence of its Next variant’s existence prior to 2005 was overwhelming. Denied! Microsoft must pay all the lawyers’ fees for Heidelburger Druckmaschinen AG, aka Linotype.

Frutiger is very similar to Adobe Myriad, designed by Robert Slimbach and Carol Twombly. Consensus seems to be that Myriad is original enough to not be considered a rip off, however. Myriad is used by Apple for their corporate publications (replacing Apple Garamond), and is also used by my team at IBM. It’s worth noting that Apple license the font from its owners, and I use a legal licensed copy too.

So…will Microsoft license Frutiger or Myriad? Or will they tweak Segoe some more?