FSF Interpretation of OFL

The OFL FAQ leaves one very important question unanswered, and that is whether SIL agrees with the FSF interpretation of the OFL. The FSF claims on its license page about the OFL that “Its only unusual requirement is that when selling the font, you must redistribute it bundled with some software, rather than alone. Since a simple Hello World program will satisfy the requirement, it is harmless.”

Does SIL agree with this interpretation of the license? It seems to me at least against the spirit of the license. What would be the use of such a condition if it can be circumvented that easily?

Hi Peter -

We don’t particularly agree or disagree with the FSF’s interpretation - that’s their opinion. We do agree with the FSF that the SIL OFL is a free copyleft license for fonts. Further rationale supporting that can be found on the SIL OFL home page if you scroll down far enough.

We haven’t found instances where condition 1 has caused any problems for original authors, distributors of derivatives, or end users. Nor have we seen widespread use of trivial programs to circumvent that condition. Condition 1 remained a part of the license throughout the community review process, and even throughout a lengthy version 1.1 update review over a decade ago. It’s presence clearly represents the spirit of the license, but does so in a way that does not hinder free use, study, adaptation, modification, improvement, and redistribution.

If you want to discuss a particular situation or the application or use of the OFL to a specific project please let me know and we can discuss that privately.



The background to my question is that I noticed that I used the URW++ GPL font exception for my metatype1 (meta)font Oceania, a licensing solution common at the time when I made it. I am now looking for an alternative, because that exception seems insufficient – it is explicitly talking about “Postscript or PDF” files only.

The SIL OFL seems to be a commonly used option, and I tend to go with what’s commonly used except if I have severe concerns. I see that the SIL OFL is considered as DFSG compatible, FSF approved and OSI approved, which seems good. On the other hand, I like to check things for myself rather than blindly accepting the opinion of those organizations.

I personally dislike the anti-commercial spirit of the SIL OFL. The preamble is giving special emphasis to “academic and linguistic communities”. Why not hobbyist, why not amateurs,. why not commercial communities, why not children painting their own letters (perhaps with help of their parents)? Font design should be for everyone, not merely academics and linguists. Condition 1 expresses a fundamentally anti-commercial stance. It is completely unclear to me how a court would interpret that condition. Is a standard “hello world” enough? Does the font have to be distributed together with a program that actually uses the font in some way? Can the program plus the font be sold for more than the value of the program alone? Those a tricky questions are implied by Condition 1 and I dislike that one has to even consider them. I have no issues with people selling the font by itself. Given that, as you say, you don’t agree or disagree with specific interpretations, that leaves much room for courts to go one way or the other. I am thus pretty sure that the SIL OFL is not the right license for me, despite its popularity, or perhaps only for dual-licensing to ensure compatibility.

A different solution would be to use the FSF’s own GPL Font exception, the existence of which I wasn’t aware yet when I did the font. And that’s the solution that I tend to favour at the moment. However, the wikipedia article on the GPL font exception mentions that Redhat has its own font exception in opposition to the FSF’s, Ubuntu has its own font license, and none of them agree very much with each other.

I would prefer a licensing solution that has a copyleft for the metafont, has a copyleft for the hinting instructions as soon as they are above some level of complexity (but with permission for embedding), but has a very permissive, non-copyleft license for the individual curves produced by the metafont. This way using the fonts for eg. a vector logo would be completely unproblematic. But I can’t find a license that matches this. Perhaps I have to write my own, though I am very reluctant to add another license to the zoo.

Just to add a few comments to what Victor said:

by “linguistic communities”, we mean all speakers of a particular language / users of the corresponding writing system. Believe me, we have no intention of limiting font design to just linguists and academics, the goal is instead to empower everyone in order to benefit an increasing range of users including speakers of lesser-know languages.

Yes, we can’t speak for the FSF’s interpretation but they have accepted that the whole license qualifies as a free software license.

Condition 1 is a social signalling feature, you are explicitely allowed to sell fonts under OFL but not just on their own. It’s a feature of the license that has been well-accepted by now. You can sell a bundle, or sell your time and expertise on a public font, etc but you can’t simply directly resell what others have made completely unchanged. In practise, it’s not very limiting, whether it’s a small or a large bundle, it does not matter, but it gives pause to those who would just seek to benefit without giving anything back or adding any value to the existing font. Hundreds of font projects seems to function fine with this small limitation. Distribution channels where there is other software alongside falls within the requirements. We felt it was needed to be in tune with expectations of the professional type design industry. Many FLOSS communities have recognized it as a small compromise they can live with.

One issue we’ve seen with the GPL font exception (from the FSF) is (beyond readability and being technology-specific) that it can be dropped downstream “If you do not wish to do so, delete this exception statement from your version.” IMHO this approach risks exposing users to unexpected requirements when using/embedding or redistributing a modified version.

The Ubuntu Font License has been deemed non-DFSG-compliant by the Debian FTP masters (and is project-specific anyway). And Liberation has moved to OFL.

I would recommend against considering your own project-specific license but use whatever you think is best.

Hope this clarifies.

You say that the FSF GPL font exception “risks exposing users to unexpected requirements when using/embedding or redistributing a modified version”. IMO, this is not a problem of the license, nor a legal problem in the first place. Rather, I consider this to be a problem of license management. I think I’m going to go with the FSF GPL font exception.