Fedora is debating dropping the storied Liberation
font family from its distribution in favor of a fork. Liberation was one of the highest-profile open fonts, but it
has languished since its initial release. Licensing issues were part of the problem, but so was the subtler disconnect of Liberation's origin as a commissioned work from a proprietary company, without an interest in working with the community. But the pressures of internationalization
means the community has long sought a replacement; one that it can continue to develop.
Liberation through the ages
Liberation was released in 2007 by Red Hat, who had commissioned the
designs from the commercial foundry Ascender Corporation. The initial
set consisted of three fonts — Liberation Sans, Liberation
Serif, and Liberation Mono — specifically designed to have the
same metrics as the proprietary Monotype fonts Arial, Times New Roman,
and Courier New, respectively. That meant that every character in
Liberation would be the exact same height and width as its counterpart
in the proprietary font, and Liberation could serve as a "drop in"
replacement without disturbing line breaks or pagination. In 2010,
Oracle donated a fourth typeface to Liberation: Liberation Sans
Narrow, which was designed to be metric-compatible with Arial Narrow.
The Liberation family was regarded as high-quality, but it covered
only the Latin, Greek, and Cyrillic alphabets, which left a lot of
writing systems unaddressed. That alone is not a problem; fonts can
— and are — extended to new writing systems frequently.
But Liberation was licensed under unique terms, which inadvertently
prevented such expansion.
Originally, the license was the GPLv2 with the Free Software
Foundation's standard font
embedding exception (which specifies that embedding the font in a
PDF or similar document does not make the document itself a "combined
work" triggering the GPL). However, Red Hat subsequently appended
additional clauses to the license
covering trademark and intellectual property concerns, and
included a custom anti-Tivoization provision. After an examination of the
extra clauses, Debian decided
that they constituted additional restrictions on the GPLv2, which made
the license self-contradictory and the fonts impossible to
redistribute. The FSF reportedly found the Liberation license
not to be a self-contradicting paradox, but said
it was incompatible with the GPL. Furthermore, in recent times the GPL-with-font-embedding-exemption
approach has fallen out of favor as an open font licensing choice,
largely in favor of the SIL
Open Font License (OFL). Fedora is aware of this shift, and now recommends
the OFL for font projects.
Regardless of the exact details, however, the general consensus was
that Liberation's peculiar license was, at best, problematic. More
importantly, the practical upshot that few people were interested in
contributing new character sets. The fonts have essentially remained
unchanged since 2007. Minor fixes and isolated characters have been
added, but no entirely new scripts.
But the metric-compatibility feature of
Liberation was its main selling point: it enabled Linux users to
share documents with colleagues that had the popular Monotype fonts
installed (e.g., all Windows systems), while ensuring
On May 17, Parag Nemade emailed
the Fedora-devel list to request packaging the Croscore family as a default, to serve as an alternative to Liberation. The Croscore family covers
all of the same language blocks as Liberation, plus several new ones
(such as Hebrew, Pinyin, and many
African alphabets). It consists of three fonts:
Arimo, Tinos, and Cousine, which also offer metric compatibility with
Monotype's Arial, Times New Roman, and Courier New.
They were commissioned by Google for use in ChromeOS, and not only are
they also the work of Steve Matteson, the same designer who created
Liberation, but they are in fact a more recent version of the exact
same designs. In an amusing bit of irony, however, Ascender Corporation
(Matteson's company) was acquired by Monotype in 2010, so the new
font family is copyrighted by Monotype, but designed to replace other
More to the point, however, Google made Croscore available under the
OFL, which makes it simpler for outside contributors to extend the
fonts to new character sets. Following the discussion in Nemade's thread, Fedora font packager Pravin Satpute proposed
importing the Croscore sources into the Liberation package, replacing
the problematically-licensed content rather than starting a separate
The Fontconfig package handles automatic font substitution on Linux,
so once a change is pushed through with rules that replace (for example) Courier
New with Croscore's Cousine instead of Liberation Mono, the only
remaining hurdle will be for users to get used to the new names in the
"Font" menu. On the other hand, growing the fonts to extend coverage
to new writing systems is not trivial. The OFL license makes it
easier; it enables developers to import and reshape glyphs from the large
assortment of other OFL-licensed fonts.
What makes all this so difficult, anyway?
The Fedora plan calls for the community to continue development on the
"Liberation 2.0" series, in the open, where the original
Liberation was not. It would probably be a minor story if it were not
for the fact that the same stalemate situation has developed for other
open font commissions.
Much the same sequence of events befell the Bitstream Vera
font family, which was designed by Bitstream (another commercial
foundry which has since been acquired by Monotype) for the GNOME
Foundation, and released in 2003. It, too, was under a license
unique to the project, and has not seen any significant updates since
its original release. Google has commissioned two fonts for
distribution with Android: the familiar Droid family and the newer Roboto;
both licensed under the Apache License (as is most of Android itself).
Both offer wide language coverage in at least one of the faces (the
sans serif), but have not otherwise seen significant expansion.
About the only open font commissioned from a commercial foundry that
has grown to include more languages and alphabets is the
Ubuntu font family designed by
the Dalton Maag foundry. Although the details are of course private,
Dalton Maag has an ongoing arrangement with Canonical to add more
character sets over time. But the project does use a public issue
tracker and accepts input and feedback from the user community,
which none of the other commercial font commissions do.
Those differences are revealing. Commissioned open font projects such
as Liberation and Bitstream Vera invariably attract significant attention
— as do large "donations" of other types to open source. But
when they are delivered in a self-contained bundle and not developed
further, they have far less impact. It is easy for those of us who
natively read European languages to forget just how many writing
systems are not covered by basic Latin, Greek, and Cyrillic.
Meanwhile, there are purely community-driven font projects that do
cover far more of the globe's writing systems, such as Linux Libertine or DejaVu (the latter of which
extends Bitstream Vera, side-stepping the peculiar Bitstream license
by releasing its changes into the public domain).
The perception among the public is that the commercial fonts are of
higher quality than the community-built fonts; a charge likely to
rankle anyone who works on free software professionally. But by
choosing non-standard licenses and not establishing the font as a
software package that can be studied and patched, the early commercial
commissions made that charge difficult to disprove. The problem is
exacerbated when the foundry is uninterested in continuing to
participate (as Bitstream was, when it said
it was only interested in extending Vera if it were paid to do
But stagnation is detrimental to a font package just as it is to any
software. Not only can every font be extended to cover more
languages, but there are updated technologies like OpenType features
and the Web Open Font
Format (WOFF) to consider. Adding new character sets to a font is
clearly a challenging task, demanding familiarity with multiple
alphabets, and often requiring patches to be integrated by hand in a
tool like FontForge. Hopefully the re-started Liberation 2.0 effort
can draw on the lessons learned by Dalton Maag and DejaVu, and grow a
sustainable project around the family. The original Liberation fonts
filled a vital gap on Linux desktops and watching them languish has been
disconcerting. Liberation now has the opportunity to re-import an entire codebase under a better license than the one that has hampered it for five years; few projects get a chance to start over at that same level — this is one that at least deserves to take a second shot.
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