Library Subscriptions: The Future of Fonts? Shall We Sing or Cry?

Yesterday, Adobe declared that Creative Cloud is its future. Designers will no longer license desktop copies of Photoshop, Illustrator, or InDesign and use them “forever” (though that word is obviously limited by each version’s practical lifespan). Instead, they subscribe to a Creative Cloud membership and get access to the apps through an online account.

Along with this announcement came the news that Typekit will be included in the Creative Cloud product. This move was widely expected — once Adobe acquired Typekit in 2011 we all knew that they would use the fonts to add value to their core software, but just how they were going to do that was less clear. Now we know: desktop font syncing. Come mid-June, paid subscribers of Creative Cloud ($50/mo.) or Typekit Portfolio ($50/yr.), Performance, and Business plans will get access to some Typekit fonts directly in their desktop OS. This includes all desktop apps, not just those from Adobe.

Adobe’s announcement comes on the heels of Monotype’s SkyFonts product which offers time-limited desktop access to any of’s webfonts for free. Those who pay for the Professional ($40/mo.) or Master subscriptions get 30-day access to all the fonts from Monotype’s internal libraries, which include Monotype, Linotype, ITC, Bitstream, and Ascender.

For many font users, these services are a godsend. Creating websites without desktop access to webfonts is a major hurdle for designers who rely on apps like Photoshop for comping. Some providers offer workarounds: OurType fonts are licensed once and can be used in print or on the web; FontFont bundles their downloadable webfonts with free (but limited) desktop versions. But Creative Cloud and Skyfonts gives users access to an entire library of fonts, not the individual fonts of traditional sales.

For font makers, these developments raise all sorts of questions. Equating the music and font industries is rife with pitfalls, but the parallels here are too conspicuous to ignore. A few years ago, people bought albums — now they stream songs from a music service. If the font market is headed down the same path, I wonder:

Will easy access to desktop fonts increase piracy?
My hunch: no. While Creative Cloud and Skyfonts obfuscate the temporarily installed fonts in some way, there is always the concern that users will find a way to hack the system or otherwise use the fonts outside the license. I feel the same way about this as I do the silly old debate about PDF embedding permissions: never punish your customers in the attempt to prevent piracy. Fighting font theft is a losing battle. Those who steal fonts will always find easier ways to steal them. Those who focus on making their fonts easy to license and use earn the good will of the market.

Will library subscriptions lessen the perceived value of type?
My hunch: yes. The recent rise of steep discounts and Google freebies has already reduced the value of fonts in most users’ eyes. Cheap access to a vast library of more professional fonts will only add fuel to that fire. Granted, the ease of use and bundling with the Adobe ecosystem will bring new users to the foundries who participate, and Typekit says that providers will be compensated whenever their fonts are used, but it’s unclear whether these things will compensate for sales lost through traditional licensing models. Mark Simonson, for one, is not worried: he says that Typekit has been good for sales via other channels. But I suspect his experience is an outlier, as his Proxima Nova is probably the most popular family in Typekit’s library, raising awareness of the typeface throughout the market. What I hear from other participating type designers is that Typekit revenue represents(ed) a very small fraction of their sales. Beyond hard numbers, I think the more important casualty is that squishy concept of type’s overall worth. As Frode Bo Helland says: “If ‘everything’ is available to ‘everyone’ for a small monthly sum, what does that do to the perceived value of a typeface?” The answer to that question may depend on the definition of “everything”. Right now, there are thousands of professional typefaces that aren’t yet available from these services. Which leads me to my final question.

Will other professional foundries join these libraries?
My hunch: mostly no. Typekit has announced that “7 top-tier foundries” are participating in the initial Creative Cloud offering, and Monotype offers their substantial collection via SkyFonts. The size of these libraries is nothing to scoff at, but it doesn’t represent heavy-hitters like Hoefler & Frere-Jones, Font Bureau, House Industries, Commercial Type, Typotheque, Emigre, and most of FontFont — not to mention a vast and growing crop of small indie foundries that increasingly defines original type design. Given what I mentioned above, I don’t think we’ll see these top-tier foundries join either venture, and if they do it will only be to tease with a few typefaces, as FontFont does with Typekit. If they don’t, the contrast between the major and indie labels will be even more stark than it is today.

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