Blue Pencil no. 18—Arial addendum

Nick Sherman suggests that those interested in the Arial story look under the Wikipedia hood to see who has contributed to its account of the typeface. “This can be found by comparing previous edits of the article, under the ‘View history’ tab. For example, you can see that Thomas Phinney has edited the Arial article several times. You can also find some interesting tidbits under the ‘Discussion’ tab.

He also reminds me that John Downer tackled the subject of copied/pirated/cloned typefaces in “Call It What It Is”, an essay published in Emigre magazine in 2003, which is now available online. “On the one hand, a type designer who makes a serious effort to acknowledge certain sources of inspiration opens himself or herself to criticism concerning the ethics of appropriating the work of another,” Downer writes. “On the other hand, a type designer who fails to cite sources, or, worse, makes a conscious effort to avoid acknowledging sources, leaves himself or herself open to charges of impropriety.” This second situation seems to me to describe the skepticism many have expressed about Monotype’s version of Arial’s history.

More directly relevant to the issue of defining what constitutes a copied/pirated/cloned typeface are Downer’s eight categories:

Closely based on historical models (metal type, hand-cut punches, etc.) for commercial or noncommercial purposes, with the right amount of historic preservation and sensitivity to the virtues of the original being kept in focus—all with a solid grounding in type scholarship behind the effort, too.

Closely based on characters from various fonts all cut by one person, or cut by various hands, all working in one particular style or genre-like a medley or an overview done more for the sake of providing a “sampling” than for the sake of totally replicating any one single cut of type.

Closely based on commercial successes (of any medium) to belatedly muscle in on part of an unsaturated market, often by being little more than a cheap imitation of what has already been deemed by experts as a legitimate revival. “Me Too” fonts, or “Copy Cat” fonts, as they are called, tend to focus on opportunism rather than on originality. These don’t rate as revivals because they don’t revive.

Loosely based on artistic successes (of any medium) as a kind of laboratory exercise, often without much concern for their immediate or eventual commercial viability.

Loosely based on historical styles and/or specific models, usually with admiration and respect for the obvious merits of the antecedents—but with more artistic freedom to deviate from the originals and to add personal touches; taking liberties normally not taken with straight revivals.

Loosely based on commercial successes (of any medium) as a means of further exploring, or further exploiting, an established genre; milking the Cash Cow one more time.

Loosely based on artistic or commercial successes (of any medium) for only rarely more than minor advancements in a tried, popular, accepted style; akin to previous category.

Loosely based on prominent features of the model, often with humor or satire as the primary objective, but quite often also with humor or satire as an unexpected effect.

Downer does not use the term pirated but counterfeit is surely the same. The problem with his definition is that it is not precise. It relies on experts to know one when they see one. It also sees clones as the same as pirated fonts. But I think there is a difference: pirated fonts are metal or film copies while clones are digital ones. Clone suggests a more accurate, if not identical, copy of a typeface. A clone is not only a typeface that looks like another one but has nearly the same data. By this definition Arial is not a clone of Helvetica, even though it has muscled in on Helvetica’s commercial success.