Digital Economics and Industrial-Era Font Foundries.

Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, movies were only shown in theaters. Television was a few fuzzy stations plucked out of the air by persnickety antennas. Music was played by flesh-and-blood musicians or scratched into vinyl discs. And fonts? Fonts were hammered into metal and meticulously set in long rows. Stealing meant physically sneaking into the theater, carrying the television out the door, shoplifting the album, or … robbing a type foundry?

Friends, we’re not in Mayberry anymore. The revolutionary power of the Internet to copy and distribute has made parochial notions of property nonsensical. It’s changing the rules right now for entertainment, newspapers, and, like it or not, font foundries.

The newspaper example.

I’m sure you’re familiar with and may have even read some of Clay Shirky’s writing. (If you’re not or you haven’t, you’d better. For the purposes of this diatribe, start with “Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable.”) Here’s Clay describing the mindset of publishers at the time:

The curious thing about the various plans hatched in the ’90s is that they were, at base, all the same plan: “Here’s how we’re going to preserve the old forms of organization in a world of cheap perfect copies!”

It’s important to note his phrasing. He said, they wanted to “preserve the old forms of organization.” He didn’t say they wanted to “profit mercilessly.” (That’s a phrase more appropriately applied to the entertainment industry.)

Font foundries think they’re entitled to an unchanged business model. They’re entitled to nothing. Preserving the old forms of organization is impossible. Somebody or several somebodies will arrive willing to sell high quality fonts at sensible prices. Somebody is going to laugh at the idea of making and selling electronic letters being called an “industry.” It’s about to become a lot less industrial. In fact, it’s already happening. Jos Buivenga gives away several weights of Museo (among others), and the entire family is only $29. Guess what? He’s massively successful.

Supply used to be determined by the producer.

Traditionally it was up to the producer to choose how many or how few widgets (to borrow a technical economic term) to make. Even if he wanted to make an unlimited number, his supply chain or the laws of physics made that impossible. You may have seen this coming, but that’s no longer a true statement, at least as far as fonts and other digital goods are concerned. A single digital copy, once created, is nearly free to reproduce, distribute, and, often, recombine in countless new forms. This fact doesn’t eliminate the laws supply and demand, it confirms them. Now that the supply curve is pushed right until it’s literally off the charts, the price is zero.

What font sellers (et al) attempt to do is artificially restrict the supply based on imagined “intellectual property” rights when they should instead be charging a lower price (per unit) reflective of the actual value they’re adding. That value is found in Kevin Kelly’s model “better than free.” If you want my advice, I’d start with immediacy, authenticity, and accessibility, to name just three.

Is it possible?

You’re thinking it’s not going to work, and you’re right, kind of. It won’t work for everyone, but it will work for a lot of people, maybe even more people will make fonts in the near future than make them right now. The industry will be realigned. Soloists like Buivenga whose Museo font was the #2 font in 2008 at MyFonts will thrive. Font aggregators may appear that enable easy font use and convenient ways to pay like Typekit.  You want an example from outside the font industry? How about Jeff Atwood who’s telling software publishers the same thing.

If foundries are unwilling to listen, that’s fine, because the market is eventually going to hammer those who copy and paste their licensing terms from a time before the Internet existed and base them on the obsolete notion that replicas are costly to produce.

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