[conspire] Fonts on Linux (was: Ubuntu)

Rick Moen rick at linuxmafia.com
Sat Oct 9 12:30:36 PDT 2004

Quoting Bill Stoye (skiffworks at earthlink.net):

> I agree, it all looks very clean to me; I had been mostly disappointed
> in the quality of Linux fonts but no more.

Back in dinosaur days[1], people used to buy the (expensive!) Corel Linux
OS Deluxe Edition retail boxed set -- which emphatically could not be
lawfully downloaded free of charge -- in part to get the bundled set of
300 very high quality PostScript Type 1 fonts.  They would then reboot
to MS-Windows, look in disgust at what they had available there, and say
"Damn, I'm disappointed in the quality of Windows fonts."

My point is that quality of fonts really has nothing at all to do with
the operating system.  It mostly has to do with... the quality of the

Yes, there are tricks that are done better on some OSes (and rendering
toolkits) than others having to do with "anti-aliasing" and subpixel
font positioning[2], whereby the rendering software tries to adjust font
display down to minute levels of detail.  (And, by the way, not everyone
agrees that the results achieved through those techniques are an
improvement:  To many of us, it just makes things look fuzzier -- mostly
on CRTs, whereas it works much better on laptop panels and LCDs.)

A lot of people also feel that good-quality TrueType fonts tend to give
better on-screen rendering that most PostScript ones, with slightly
lower computational overhead[3], while just about everyone agrees that
the _printed_ quality from decent PostScript fonts leaves everything
else in the dust.

But the biggest determining factor is font quality.  Designing and
building good fonts happens to be a difficult, rare, specialised,
time-consuming skill.  99.999% of people who make fonts are really bad
at it.  If you or I pick up a violin and try to play the Brahms
concerto, odds are it would sound like a cat being tortured.  However,
0.001% of the time, the instrument gets picked up by Isaac Stern -- but
Stern rarely plays for free.[4]

Very occasionally, a really good set of fonts gets released for
free-of-charge redistribution of some sort.  In each case, _somebody_ 
originally paid some analogue of Isaac Stern big bucks to spend a year 
creating that font set -- and much later, for reasons of industry
positioning or something like that, decided to make that expensive
creation free of charge to the public.

For example, Microsoft Corporation happened to have commissioned a
really nice set of TrueType fonts called the MS TrueType Core Fonts
collection.  MS clearly intended them to be installed only by MS-Windows
users, and thus provided them in MS-DOS ".cab" format.

More recently, after considerable negotiations, typeface foundry
Bitstream, Inc. agreed to make its "Vera" TrueType font collection
available under a reasonably generous licence[5], and those are bundled
with recent GNOME releases such as the GNOME 2.8 included with Ubuntu

...Which of course begs the question of what happens on any other Linux
distribution where you install the Vera collection.  The answer is:  You
suddenly have a high-quality font set, where you probably didn't before.

Thus, although it's fine to like Ubuntu, it's Bitstream you really
should be thanking.

Me, I've been squirreling away high-quality font files for the entire
last couple of decades[6], so I can make pretty much any OS look good in
that sense.  In particular, I have those 300 outstanding PostScript 
Type1 fonts in three .deb archives, retained when I threw away my old
copy of Corel Linux OS 1.2 Deluxe Edition.   My, those are nice.

But I've become fond of some of the community's amateur-produced fonts,
too -- and I'm generally not very picky, I guess.  In particular, I
rather like Free Software Foundation's reimplementation of Charles
Bigelow and Kris Holmes's "Lucida" typeface family -- though many people
think I'm strange, about that.

Anyhow, if you _are_ picky about typefaces, by all means make a beeline
to the Bitstream Vera (preferably packaged for your distribution) and
the MS TrueType Core fonts (which are slightly restricted so that they 
cannot be included in distros):  http://corefonts.sourceforge.net/

[1] Around 1998-2001.

[2] http://jmason.org/howto/subpixel.html

[3] Some would argue that this is why TrueType has become ordinary while
PostScript is now considered mildly exotic, but the truth is that
relative pricing of fonts has a lot more to do with that.

[4] Interesting, little-known fact:  Typefaces ("fonts') per se do not
fall within any of the categories covered by the USA Copyright Act (or
similar statutes elsewhere).  Therefore, they are not controllable by
their creators through copyright law.  However, any significant computer
typeface includes a truly vital program called a "hinting routine",
without which it would look really terrible.  That program is what gives 
its creator copyright control -- and, potentially, patent coverage.  More at:

[5] The Bitstream Vera collection may be freely redistributed without
modification, and may be redistributed with modification as long as the
modified typefaces' names are changed.  Any redistribution in commerce
(for money) must bundle the fonts with software; the fonts may not be
sold by themselves (except under a different name).

[6] But having to archive stuff you may not lawfully redistribute is 
a pain in the ass.  I have, for example, lots of font files from MacOS
that I've never yet bothered to convert into a portable format and
properly archive.  It takes time and effort, and even then you can lose
everything on account of a lost or unreadable CDR.  That's always a risk 
with proprietary stuff; with FSF Lucida, there are no such worries.  Nor
Bitstream Vera, come to think of that.  And the MS TrueType Core Fonts 
are at least publicly archived, even if there are strings attached to 

More information about the conspire mailing list