I’ve written in the past about what a mistake it is to add behavioral incentives or morality clauses to the licenses for open-source projects. Briefly, these clauses are bad:

  • philosophically because they infringe the on basic software freedom to use a freely-available project for any purpose1;
  • legally because they generally rely on vague and subjective terms and (paradoxically) thus rendering your license both radioactive and unenforceable; and
  • practically because instead of preventing people from doing things that you don’t like, they just prevent people — even those who wouldn’t be inclined to do things you don’t like! — from using your work.

One software domain in which licenses with usage restrictions are commonplace (and, unfortunately, widely accepted) is digital fonts. This has historically been a problem for Fedora, since many “free” fonts are not open-source (in that they do not permit modification) or have usage restrictions (in particular, against “commercial” use). Furthermore, much like novel one-off open-source software licenses, most partially-free licenses authored by font creators are unlikely to be unambiguous or legally sensical.2

The problem gets far worse when we look at commercial fonts, for which the type of application and type of output are often incorporated in usage restrictions. Last year, I licensed a font whose EULA was self-contradictory; you can click the link for the whole story, but the main problem was that it claimed to broadly allow rasterization, including use to “create images on computer screens, paper, web pages, photographs, movie credits, printed material, T-shirts, and other applications,” but that I couldn’t use the font “as part of broadcasting video or film […] the use of the font software in titling, credits or other text for any onscreen broadcast via television, video, or motion picture.”

Since one of my creative endeavors is editing home and bicycling videos, the combination of being allowed to “create … movie credits” but not to “use the font software in titling, credits or other text for … motion picture” was pretty frustrating, especially since the EULA hadn’t been obviously available for review until after I licensed the face. (There were numerous other problems, ambiguities, and contradictions with the license, and when I asked the foundry for for a clarification, they curtly denied that there was anything to be confused about.)

For more than a year and a half, this inconsistent license has been my benchmark to evaluate whether or not a font is more trouble than it’s worth, and I’ve at least learned to be more careful reading font EULAs.3 However, I recently came across an example4 that so completely outclasses the contradictory license that I can’t imagine it will be replaced as the new standard for terrible usage clauses in licenses. Here’s an excerpt; the author’s name is redacted:

Fonts by [redacted] may NOT be used for pornographic, derogatory, defamatory or racist material (in any form, printed or virtual); fonts by [redacted] may NOT be used by individuals or companies involved in child abuse, child pornography or child labour; fonts by [redacted] may NOT be used by individuals or companies involved in destruction of natural resources and/or habitat, logging (even legal), palm oil exploitation/harvesting, tuna fishing, whaling, animal trafficking, oil and/or gas drilling or transporting and mining. Fonts by [redacted] may NOT be used by individuals or companies promoting an unhealthy lifestyle (fast food, energy drinks, foods containing GM ingredients). Fonts by [redacted] may NOT be used by companies or individuals involved in Genetic Modification / Genetic Alteration of organisms. Fonts by [redacted] may NOT be used by individuals or companies involved in fur trade, or making use of fur. Fonts by [redacted] may NOT be used by missionaries, individuals or institutions of any creed or faith for the purpose of converting others to their creed or faith. Fonts by [redacted] may NOT be used to instigate terror, hate, intolerance, fear or racism.

I almost don’t know where to begin with this one, since it raises so many questions for the licensor:

  • When do we cross the line from light-hearted ribbing to “derogatory material”? Are satire and parody proscribed?
  • Say I use this font to title a bicycling video; would the licensor need to see what sort of chain lubricant I used or whether or not I was a regular inner-tube recycler before determining that I wasn’t involved in “destruction of natural resources”? (What about people who eat animal protein? Or plants?)
  • Are we mostly worried about the Indonesian orangutan, or is (relatively-low-impact) West African palm oil OK? Is the palm oil industry full of typophiles? How many jars of palm oil bore the licensor’s glyphs before he added this clause?
  • How are we defining “unhealthy” or “genetic modification”? It seems like consensus regularly changes on the former and the latter is — like much of the language in this clause — actually kind of vague despite being deployed in an absolute manner. Can I replant seeds from my best tomatoes or must I toss them? (In a related question, since I have the suspicion that it might come up in a future revision of this license: is it OK to use this font to promote vaccination?)
  • What about people of faith whose creed includes a concept of vocation, or the notion that they serve God through their creative and professional work?

Hopefully, these kinds of questions — along with many more like them that you may be asking yourself — underscore why this kind of license is a problem: the licensor probably hoped to make a clear statement of principles, condemn what he saw as social ills, and avoid assisting people and groups he’d find objectionable. Instead, the license restrictions are so broad as to exclude use by anyone except the font’s creator (who is unlikely to sue himself for breach of contract). No matter who you are or what you do, if the licensor wanted to sue you, he probably could.

I’m inclined to excuse that last sentence, though, since the licensor seems to know a thing or two about instigating “hate, intolerance, [and] fear.”

  1. The GNU Project calls this “Freedom 0.”

  2. If you’re releasing open-source software, you should use a well-known license. If you want to release a font freely, you should have a very good reason for using anything except the Open Font License or the LPPL.

  3. This may be surprising to people used to regular software licensing, but I’ve seen fonts for sale in different places with different licenses! It seems like some sellers have standard EULAs and require font creators to allow distribution under these, while others maintain the creators’ EULAs.

  4. Alas, I came across this example after paying for a license.

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