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Important question regarding ethics

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Several months ago I think I downloaded a font from either an open-source or free-font site for reasons I don't even remember anymore. In fact I can't remember where it came from but I know it began as something I wouldn't have used a whole lot if at all.

After downloading the font I immediately opened it in FontLab and before I knew it, I had gone off on my own zoned-out brain hike and started messing around in every glyph like I was rearranging furniture. I eventually snapped out of it and saved the file, not to open it again for months.

Recently after running across it again in one of my desktop folders, the file name didn't ring a bell so I opened it again and was like, "Oh yeah ... wow, check this out." I immediately began messing around with it some more and liked its progress so much I spent the next three or four weeks essentially rebuilding the entire font. As of this moment it's still nothing I'd ever use, but in my eyes it clearly has some definite potential.

Now the rub: In all honesty, I cannot remember where I got the font, its name, or anything else for that matter other than it was definitely a serif face of some sort, likely for text. However, now it's a nice-looking sans serif and considering the amount of work put into it and alterations made to it, couldn't even slightly resemble what it was when I first administered the anesthesia and opened it up. I also know that for sure because if was similar I'd probably remember what it began as.

So in simple terms what I've done here is created an entirely unique font, after starting the process with an entire set of previously created character forms. And the difference is so great, it was akin to taking a script font and turning it into a monospace for DOS.

The question now is, what if anything could I do with this font? Would I be breaching ethical goodness if I ended up selling this font or giving it to a friend for exclusive use in his/her business? YES, I realize I didn't start it from scratch but I also know the end result is completely unique. So where does that leave me? If someone takes, say, Helvetica for example and turns it into a gorgeous display script - and somehow benefits from it - should he or she start saying Hail Marys?

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I think you need to undertake a really serious effort to figure out what the original font was and read the original EULA. Without knowing what the rules and design were in the first place, you can’t ethically release this design, because you really don’t know if you broke the rules or if the design really is something new.

You could always try passing the font to the Fontlab support staff to see if they can poke through the file to find the name of the original designer, and then contact that person for the most useful opinion you’re going to get.

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First to dezcom: I can't remember what the original font was or if I even have it anymore so the before/after scenario is not possible. More on that in a second.

To sii: Ordinarily those would be good places to search but I'm what one might identify as nomadic when it comes to my computer files, their names, locations, etc. In other words, the original .vfb file has likely been "saved as" four or five different things notwithstanding the fact I probably began this journey almost a year ago. That and the fact my computer is in a perpetual disaster-zone state means I pretty much live in the technological "now." I didn't even return to the original file until several weeks later and even then failed to recognize the name.

This all does however raise some interesting questions in my mind. Such as, in the long run does it matter whether I could identify the original font or not, or provide the aforementioned before/after comparison? I probably placed too much emphasis on my inability to remember the original font.

Another thing, in regards to what Mr. Puckett wrote earlier: for the sake of discussion let's say the original was an open-type version of the script font "Tiffany," which I assume would come with some form of copyright/don't-mess-with-this protection. Yet now, the font is called "Curious" in which every glyph is a conservative sans down to the bone. What would I have done, in that situation? Did I alter the actual physical file or have I painted on some eyebrows and am calling my work the "Moaning Lisa?" If I painted a landscape of the Everglades over the Mona Lisa, could da Vinci claim an intellectual property foul? Pretty tricky stuff if you ask me.

Which is why I asked all of you. In a sense it's kinda like this: I created from scratch the lc "g" I use as my little icon there, along with the rest of the font to which it belongs. What if, though, that "g" originally started out as the one from "Futuris Condensed Light," itself a direct "descendent" of its Futura predecessor? Who would I have wronged in that case, if anyone at all? As you can see, my "g" doesn't share any conceivable similarity with the Futura lc "g" other than both of them come after the letter "f."

Of course oprion said it all when he that the ethics issue is a personal one. Obviously I see some potential violation since I've now asked the question, but I can't escape the fact that what the font is now in .vfb form is completely from my own brain. Still, my mom always said when it comes to love and morality (ethics too), "if there's any doubt, then there is no doubt." Meaning, it's either immoral or not love.

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If you have a good recollection of how the original font looked like, you should be able to re-discover it on the Internet; if you don't have a good recollection of how the original font looked like, you cannot claim with certainty that your alteration is fundamentally different from the original.

In any case, it appears you haven't tried very hard to track down the original font (how many hours have you spent trying?), and I don't think there's any excuse for that.

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henrypijames, your post - at least from where I stand - amounts to little more than an ordinance stating that since a horse can be turned into glue, it's clear one must be able to turn glue into a horse.

I have no recollection of any kind as it relates to the original font, including how it looked, what it was named or if it went better with white wine or red. However, I CAN be absolutely certain the difference in the original font and what I have now is like night and day ... for, let's see, one, two, three ... four ... a whole hell of a lot of reasons. Most prominent among those being how much time and attention I've already given the font.

I realize you don't know me from a toaster oven but let me assure you I am not the type to spend fortnights to the nth power tweaking nodes a single point east or west and then back again for more than 200 glyphs. Another reason I can be certain is, I am a slave to sans-serif typefaces.

That being said, I've never seen a single sans font that's made me even consider what it might look like with that chunk of it missing, or this descender lowered by 20 percent. Thus, even though a well-developed fetus could count the number of times I've ramshackled an already existing typeface for the sheer hedonic glee of it, when I am struck by that demonic urge, being conservative about it is the last thing on my mind. Conversely, the creator of Deep Blue probably couldn't count the number of times I've all but finished, for example, a particularly wide all-caps font before nausea compelled me to turn around and transform it into a bunch of wetbar-themed dingbats.

And finally, a few really important considerations in the overall picture here:

a.) This font isn't even spaced well and hasn't even been approached with the prospect of kerning yet. Summary 1: the several months I've spent on the font has all been on the letterforms. In fact this particular font might be the fourth different one I've done since opening the original file. Summary 2: It's no more ready to be used - or given away, or sold - as a legitimate typeface than my untied laces that land in the shape of an "o" or "s" after I've taken off my shoes. Consequently, my illegitimate excuse for not trying hard to find out the font's original existence remains as follows: why would I? I promise, long before I take that first step into moral descent - provided I ever even kern this font much less finish it - I will pack my parka and snow shoes for whatever lengthy search of the wild I may have to launch to find my own little font Yoda.

b.) You wrote: "if you don’t have a good recollection of how the original font looked like, you cannot claim with certainty that your alteration is fundamentally different from the original." Uh ... hmmm. You might have something here. But help me out here - couldn't that lack of recall also be attributed to the fact that it does look so different now? Almost via default? I vote against falling into that black hole of a chicken/egg dialogue. But not before making this point - if it currently did look anything like the original, science would dictate my chance of total recall improves by, well, I don't know but I bet it's a pretty sizable amount.

But, thanks for checking in with your disdain despite the fact I could've just said screw the world and stealthily tried to milk every penny I could get out of this font, and have committed no sin beyond asking the people here to offer their opinion on an ethical issue. Baseless and unwarranted cynicism and disparagement has always gotten a bad rap in my opinion.

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Curious Type, there is an easy way of resolving this situation.

1) Print out all the glyphs in the font you made out of that other font (which we're unsure of the identity of).
2) Tape the print out of the glyphs (your designs and drawings) to the side of your monitor.
3) Draw, reproduce each glyph in Fontlab starting with a New font, drawing by eye.
4) Just look at the printed glyphs and draw what you see. Draw by eye, imitate, mimic.
5) This way your new font will have no stolen points, no stolen curves.

Note to colleagues---is this a good idea do you think? It's only a suggestion, and it's the only thing I can think of doing to put some distance between the original font Curious started with and what he decided on as his after his drawing and design activities.

Meantime, Curious, we really need to see what you ended up with to help identify the source font, in order to determine how different your result may or may not be from the source.

j a m e s

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@Curioustype: But, thanks for checking in with your disdain despite the fact I could’ve just said screw the world and stealthily tried to milk every penny I could get out of this font, and have committed no sin beyond asking the people here to offer their opinion on an ethical issue. Baseless and unwarranted cynicism and disparagement has always gotten a bad rap in my opinion.

Dude, what henry p james had to say back there was definitely not baseless and unwarranted cynicism and disparagement. No sir. He is trying to help you. That's all I am trying to do as well.

Just take it all in good faith and we will do our level best to help you get this sorted out.

j a m e s

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Hi Curious,

Forgive me if this sounds a little confrontational, but what exactly were you hoping to get from this thread if not honest feedback on your original question? Your OP asks:

"The question now is, what if anything could I do with this font? Would I be breaching ethical goodness if I ended up selling this font or giving it to a friend for exclusive use in his/her business?"

Various people since have given you the obvious answer - that the first step needs to be finding the original font (and its attendant EULA) and assessing the differences between it and your new creation. To turn around later and say that obviously you would do that if you ever planned to release it kind of makes the original question redundant. If you don't plan to release it, you have no worries. If you do, you need to find the original.

People have offered to try and help identify it if you post your version. If they can give you some ideas then you'll be a lot closer to finding the original. And if they can't, then there's a pretty good chance that your new glyphs are sufficiently different for you to no longer worry. Whether or not that would mean you are legally clear is a totally different question, but either way you'd have a much better understanding of how to proceed.

Take care,

Andi

[semibad]

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Mr. Arboghast: There is no question I've received very insightful and stimulating response here, and very much appreciate the help people are trying to provide. Including most recently from you.

Just two things, however, the first being to pretty much everyone and the second more directly to you:

1.) My original goal was not to figure out what the original font was ... not even close. Honestly I couldn't care less, especially since this thread has convinced me of what I kinda already knew - that regardless of how good it is or different it is from the original, the font in its current state will never be anything more than an exercise in practice and experience.

My original and lone goal was to see how others here would view the whole scenario in ethical terms. I really wasn't looking to obtain anyone's permission to sell or even give away the font just to feel better about doing it. More like trying to measure my approach to ethics next to others who could thoughtfully consider and comment on their own. I suppose if people are looking for the challenge it might provide, I could post some kind of image, but I have no need to know its origins. I do however appreciate all the people who jumped in the boat here and tried to help me row ashore. If the mystery of it all would provide stimulating thought to anyone, just let me know and I'll let you at it.

2.) Not to dig too deep here, Mr. Arboghast, I will just say that the definition of the word "excuse," in this context, is to "justify; make an apology for." To suggest I either did something unjust or for which I needed to apologize - especially considering what I REALLY did and explained above - is an insult to my character. To then suggest that "unjust" conduct was indefensible is what I call a verbal assault first, and "help," somewhere like ninety-eighth. Out of 99. That's just me, though, relying on the specific words written above by henry p james and how webster's defines the most striking among them. Perhaps I should apologize for such deviant analytics. Or for being a smartass just havin a little fun with you guys.

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Hi Curious,

I don't think anyone was 'suggesting' that you had done anything unjust - simply that if you were wanting to release this font (which is what you heavily suggested in your original post) then tracking down the original was your obvious first step. If you want to release a font which is a derivative work, then really there is no excuse not to try and find out the original. It's a simple statement, not a 'verbal assault' or an 'insult to your character' - there's no call to be so dramatic. This last post to James did you no favours.

Andi

[semibad]

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Andi:

Calling me "dramatic" tells me you apparently haven't spent much of your life studying social morays or sociology (30 minutes, tops?); nor have you made an effort to get to know me in the least - all of which in my book is unpardonable.

Was that a little harsh to you? Because it is virtually identical to what henry p james said to me ... only I didn't even do anything remotely similar to calling anyone "dramatic," which was just used for reference and not to imply your application of the word was condescending.

See for yourself - these were his words: "In any case, it appears you haven’t tried very hard to track down the original font (how many hours have you spent trying?), and I don’t think there’s any excuse for that."

I guess it's a disagreement of what each of us considers borderline offensive. I can dig that.

As for the font issue, I never really intended to release the font in any way, shape, or form. I just became interested in the world's view on it because in the two seconds I actually did give releasing it some real thought, the dichotomy of it made me so queasy I almost yacked. It's an odd feeling to go from feeling like scum to full artist's exhiliration in a mere 1.98 seconds. In truth this subject has hundreds of potential layers and no real clear solution. For example, what if I opened a new, blank font in FontLab and then created all the glyphs from scratch using the infected .vfb file as a visual guide? And the two fonts differed by say 40 percent instead of 70?

Another mind-bender is this: do foundries/designers copyright or legally prohibit others from altering the actual physical font file itself, or from creating a new vfb from scratch and simply duplicating the letter forms? Or both? Whatever the answer is, I am of the opinion that many of those clamoring for stricter infringement rules need to more thoroughly identify what it is they're attempting to protect. I did however obtain several very solid and diverse opinions and was able to - for myself anyway - resolve my own inner quarrel on the issue. Even amidst all the verbal gymnastics.

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Isn't the ethics question very clear cut. Using someone’s font as the basis of your font regardless of the number of changes you make is not ethically okay - the issue of losing track of the original source doesn't appear to be relevant.

If the question relates to legalities rather than ethics, then there are separate arguments and I think James’s tracing suggestion probably passes the bar in most jurisdictions. (not being a lawyer I don’t know for sure).

However there are various cautionary tales out there of people making "original" fonts that seem to contain generic characters (math operators etc.,) lifted from other fonts, or "original" fonts popping up with other people's vendor IDs embedded. These fall more into the camp of PR - in this business simple mistakes like this can hurt reputations long-term.

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Despite agreeing with most of the answers provided to you Curioustype, I think that you knew the answer to your question way before making this thread.

Even though none of us has a "right" answer to your question, I think the ones you got pretty much in essence respond to Jonathan Clede's proposition "if you have two choices, one ethical and the other ambiguous, most of us would go with the former."

--
There must be some way out of here...

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rax you are probably right, but I think this issue is far more complex than could ever be worked out here. I don't remember "disagreeing" with the answers provided here; I was simply trying to generate the most diversity in them as I possibly could. This was not an exercise in self-reassurance by any means, and when all is said and done this was just a forum topic about a font that will never see the light of day. It certainly wasn't my attempt to defend something like what happened to Jos's Delicious font or the T26 lookalike of "Infinity" if I'm remembering correctly.

I guess above all, this ordinarily would have been a no-brainer for me if not for my certainty in the fact that the original font and what it is now are two completely different things. Which made me wonder why some of the talk centered around the concept of being "inspired" by or creating a quasi-tribute version of the font. I can't imagine either of those being applicable since I can't be inspired by or pay tribute to a typeface of which I have no memory or knowledge. That said, I think the meat of my inquiry got lost - that being the issue of the differences in the two fonts.

As I asked earlier, what if i just opened a new vfb file and re-created the font by simply eye-balling it and matching all the point positions? That of course would mean I created what ultimately was my own design (keeping in mind how much it differs from the original) in a brand new FontLab file. Could that still be considered unethical. And if so, who's to say how far that ethical line could be extended? I definitely have trouble with those who say under those circumstances I'd still be less-than above board since the only real tie or similarities between the two that remain was that long ago I opened the original in FontLab. The number "if-thens" that could be raised on this topic are mind boggling.

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"I have no idea whatsoever how the original looked, except that it has no similarity to the current form" is a self-contradicting statement. Without any means of varification (even for yourself, let alone for others), your repeated claim (probably in good faith, but that doesn't matter) that your new creation were fundamentally different from the original remains groundless and therefore extremely doubious.

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The moral to the story is, don't open other peoples fonts in FontLab and start messing with them--even if you have no intention of using it, you may change your mind later.
You learn much more by starting from scratch and designing your own.

ChrisL

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Can I tell a story, of a similar experience and how I solved it.

I'm a big Nine Inch Nails fan, and they decided last year that they were going to release hours of the studio recordings as the multi-track original format so anybody could easily remix them. They also put those under a creative commons licence and made a website to host fan-made remixes called remix.nin.com

During the summer I downloaded a song that I forgot about, then one night I stumbled across this track called bosendorfer morhper and I was hypnotized by it. It was totally unrecognizable, and I loved it - I had no idea where it was from.

I wanted to use it in a remix, or pieces of it, and I knew it was under a creative commons licence so I knew I was free to, but I couldn't give credit to the author because I didn't know.

I spent 3 entire evenings and nights scouring remix.nin.com listening for it, hunting for it. I knew I downloaded it April 4th, so I looked at the other songs I had downloaded and tried to search for what I thought I might have been searching for. Then I searched for dozens of other songs.

I had given up on it, when one day I was just listening to remix.nin.com on random (and there are THOUSANDS of songs) and it played. At last I knew who it was!

My advice to you search systematically Try to think back to the date you got the original if you can, and see what else you downloaded at that time. Check the metadata for any hints as to the author, or any information you could search for. don't give up because it's still out there, and you will likely run across it again, and maybe even when you're not looking for it.

Good luck, I know what this situation feels like, but do know that it is possible to find these things if you try. As it turns out when I discovered the song, I also discovered the artist, and now I know everything else they've done.

Happy Hunting!

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dezcom if you're a visual person you can picture me holding my index finger on the tip of my nose and pointing at you as my response to your recent statement. Although, some progressives (read: those who don't give a crap) might still say, as long as the finished product is completely different in every way, what's really been "stolen," or pirated, whatever? Again, if I went into "Now Sans" (which by the way I like very much) and turned it into something that looked like "FF Amoeba," how exactly have I truly violated or stolen from you? Personally, my answer would be along the lines of, well I can't think of one single thing I have "stolen" from you, but since my gut is wrenching right now it must be something. To which my left brain then says, but does a wrenching gut translate to actual theft of something tangible? At that point I just say OK guys, quit arguing now - let the typophiles settle it.

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