Creating a future free of type piracy

It starts with working with what you’ve got.

A couple of years ago, one of my graphic design students handed in a project that used the typeface Gotham. As soon as she handed it to me, I looked at her skeptically.

“You have a license for Gotham?” I asked, knowing that the least expensive license runs close to $200—which is not typically the kind of cash students in New York City, or even in the United States, tend to have to spend on school projects.

“Yes!” she declared triumphantly. She, like all my students, knew that I do not accept projects using pirated fonts; it’s stated clearly in my syllabus, and I assertively read this aloud on Day 1 each semester. She continued, “Professor ___ gave us all a CD of it!”

[insert swear words and stunned faces here]

The macro issue at hand is that even professional designers and professors of design do not value type. So starting off by demonizing students who are clueless is short-sighted.

Students need to be taught that type has value, and good type is expensive. Even a lot of bad type is expensive. And so in order to teach them how to know the difference, and how best to spend their money once they have it, they need to work with what they have: system fonts.

No one needs to be taught how to use type designed by Tobias Frere-Jones or Christian Schwartz. Those fonts set themselves, with few exceptions. And that is a wonderful thing, and the typefaces that talented type designers spend years making should be expensive.

But in the meantime, isn’t design all about working within parameters? How to make something beautiful out of disparate parts? A student who can actually typeset the system version of Baskerville impresses me. One who can actually find elegant sans and serif pairings within Creative Cloud’s defaults has done the work of truly looking at these typefaces.

No, a bargain bin of fonts that costs $49 is not fair to type designers, because it devalues their work as a whole, as a concept. But when the link was sent to me by one of my students, who was asking if it was a deal he should take, I concurred that four or five typefaces in the ‘collection’ would be useful to him as he built up his type library. For every legitimate license of Trade Gothic, Avenir, DIN and Malabar this student has in his toolbox, is another shitty free font abandoned. With the pride of legitimate typefaces will come a sensitivity to their forms, and a recognition of the differences between those fonts, the shitty ones, and the really expensive ones he can save for or write into a future budget.

This is not just speculation or hope. I’ve seen this in action with my own students and even designers I’ve worked with (many, many of whom had absolutely no problem whatsoever with pirating fonts, until they met me.) And I think this is one of the points type designers make when they lament deals like the one above: that when something costs money, society assigns it value, and when it is free, it does not. But the other, more important thing that assigns a font value? Understanding what a good font is.

Nothing makes you appreciate the design of a well-crafted typeface quite like having to work with inferior typefaces. To clarify, many of the fonts students use out of default have made the leap from wood or metal, to phototype, to the early days of digital—so while the original design may have worked for one medium, it may not work as well digitally as contemporary faces, which get to employ a whole slew of tools that adjust for space and size that early digitization did not.

I do not believe that giving away typefaces makes a student a better designer. I do believe that fostering an appreciation for type by showing students realistic ways to begin building their own type libraries leads to future designers who will buy type. Fontstand is an excellent choice for introducing this in a gradual way, although it’s better when searching for type for a specific project rather than building up one’s own library. Teaching students about finding typefaces and then finding the budgets to pay for them makes them better designers and avoids them undercutting other designers on cost by stealing fonts. The same student who before had thought she had a legitimate copy of Gotham not only learned the mistake, but in a later semester saved up to purchase Karloff for her final project—an interpretation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. What a good choice.


Elizabeth Carey Smith is a design director and type designer based in New York. She is an avid reader, writer, letterer, and rap music listener—whose focus is how letters and words express the most simple and complex aspects of our lives.

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8 thoughts on “Creating a future free of type piracy

  1. I agree with your points that students should get used to licensing typefaces and use quality fonts instead of incomplete and bumpily produced free fonts. I only wish this was a package geared to students and educational institution and not a general offer that also people will buy who could easily afford fonts more expensive than €0,65. This price is massively undercutting other type foundries and vendors who don’t have the market power to offer royalty-free fonts from their catalog but try to pay their designers a fair share. Students who buy this package will very likely return to the respective sales platform for other fonts, to complete families in this package or just because they have an account there now and know their way around (= the intended marketing effect by Monotype, furthering their quasi-monopoly). I’d wish for easier ways to introduce more font plurality and joy in independently choosing interesting typefaces into classrooms worldwide.

  2. Excellent points. I oppose extreme discounts on professional fonts for professionals because it cripples professional independent type designers. But offering discounts or free trials to students is a good thing. It’s also good business: Just ask Adobe, who taught millions of students to trust their typefaces because nearly every design program in the US had a copy of Font Folio.

  3. Missed your comment while posting, Indra. I agree. I’d like to see more indie foundries offer educational discounts so the minds of the next design generation can be opened up to the wide world of type outside the main distributors. Thanks for your handy list of those who do! I guess it needs an update, but I still refer to it often.

    1. At least the part about trials should be pretty up-to-date, only added that recently. The others I don’t know, should check if the links are rotten by now. Happy to include updated and new info if anyone has some!

  4. I for one totally agree with not demonizing; frankly even making piracy a total deal-breaker is too extreme in my book – I’d rather take it as an opportunity to educate. Because to me a teacher is a lot like a parent: forgiving, but firm in giving guidance. That’s why I don’t think even “four or five” fonts valued at $49 is a good thing to teach; in a way I’d rather they feel guilty pirating! Better to use the limited funds to identify and purchase one really good font, and use it as best as possible, growing a library slowly.

    By the same token, I’ve come to believe that heavy discounting is worse than free. Because people know nothing is supposed to be free, but heavy discounting makes them think the full price is a scam.

    That said, it’s not easy to balance all this when dealing with people who shouldn’t be spending too much, but should have a lot of fonts at their disposal… So maybe we can at least agree there’s no consistent answer.

    1. Sure. But that initial knowledge of selecting type comes from practicing using type. So there’s a step in between there: you tell them about it, they explore it themselves, they hunger for more choice, they tentatively spend their small amounts of student money on, in this case, some tried-and-true Trade Gothic, they discover a love of grotesques, they become fangirls of Jeremy Mickel, they write a budget for MCKL into every contract. 🙂

      1. Here’s the thing: if we agree that even those buying the $49 bundle typically pirate fonts, maybe we should tolerate them using pirated fonts for such practicing; just not anything to earn a grade (and eventually money) with. And by extension, save their money for the good stuff that they use professionally. To me it comes back to not devaluing fonts via discounted “legitimate” ones; the guilt of piracy does not fully stop it (and notably, nothing will) but it still serves a fruitful purpose.

  5. As a type designer and a graphic designer, I am very grateful to you for your post and happy to see that educators like you are taking a stance and doing something about font piracy.

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