The Ubuntu Font Family is the first time that a libre typeface has been designed professionally and explicitly with the intent of developing a public and long-term community-based development process.
When developing an open project, it is generally necessary to have firm foundations: a font needs to maintain harmony within itself even across many type designers and writing systems. For the Ubuntu Font Family, the process has been guided with the type foundry Dalton Maag setting the project up with firm stylistic foundation covering several left-to-right scripts: Latin, Greek and Cyrillic; and right-to-left scripts: Arabic and Hebrew (due in 2011).
With this starting point the community will, under the supervision of Canonical and Dalton Maag, be able to build on the existing font sources to expand their character coverage. Ultimately everybody will be able to use the Ubuntu Font Family in their own written languages across the whole of Unicode (and this will take some time!).
The licence chosen by any free software project is one of the foundational decisions that sets out how derivatives and contributions can occur, and in turn what kind of community will form around the project.
Using a licence that is compatible with other popular licences is a powerful constraint because of the network effects: the freedom to share improvements between projects allows free software to reach high-quality over time. Licence-proliferation leads to many incompatible licences, undermining the network effect, the freedom to share and ultimately making the libre movement that Ubuntu is a part of less effective. For all kinds of software, writing a new licence is not to be taken lightly and is a choice that needs to be thoroughly justified if this path is taken.
Today it is not clear to Canonical what the best licence for a font project like the Ubuntu Font Family is: one that starts life designed by professionals and continues with the full range of community development, from highly commercial work in new directions to curious beginners' experimental contributions. The fast and steady pace of the Ubuntu release cycle means that an interim libre licence has been necessary to enable the consideration of the font family as part of Ubuntu 10.10 operating system release.
Before taking any decision on licensing, Canonical as sponsor and backer of the project has reviewed the many existing licenses used for libre/open fonts and engaged the stewards of the most popular licenses in detailed discussions. The current interim licence is the first step in progressing the state-of-the-art in licensing for libre/open font development.
The public discussion must now involve everyone in the (comparatively new) area of the libre/open font community; including font users, software freedom advocates, open source supporters and existing libre font developers. Most importantly, the minds and wishes of professional type designers considering entering the free software business community must be taken on board.
Conversations and discussion has taken place, privately, with individuals from the following groups (generally speaking personally on behalf of themselves, rather than their affiliations):
One issue highlighted early on in the survey of existing font licences is that of document embedding. Almost all font licences, both free and unfree, permit embedding a font into a document to a certain degree. Embedding a font with other works that make up a document creates a "combined work" and copyleft would normally require the whole document to be distributed under the terms of the font licence. As beautiful as the font might be, such a licence makes a font too restrictive for useful general purpose digital publishing.
The situation is not entirely unique to fonts and is encountered also with tools such as GNU Bison: a vanilla GNU GPL licence would require anything generated with Bison to be made available under the terms of the GPL as well. To avoid this, Bison is published with an additional permission to the GPL which allows the output of Bison to be made available under any licence.
The conflict between licensing of fonts and licensing of documents, is addressed in two popular libre font licences, the SIL OFL and GNU GPL:
The Ubuntu Font Family must also resolve this conflict, ensuring that if the font is embedded and then extracted it is once again clearly under the terms of its libre licence.
Those individuals involved, especially from Ubuntu and Canonical, are interested in finding a long-term libre licence that finds broad favour across the whole libre/open font community. The deliberation during the past months has been on how to licence the Ubuntu Font Family in the short-term, while knowingly encouraging everyone to pursue a long-term goal.
The GPL version 3 (GPLv3) will be used for Ubuntu Font Family build scripts and the CC-BY-SA for associated documentation and non-font content: all items which do not end up embedded in general works and documents.
For the short-term only, the initial licence is the Ubuntu Font License (UFL). This is loosely inspired from the work on the SIL OFL 1.1, and seeks to clarify the issues that arose during discussions and legal review, from the perspective of the backers, Canonical Ltd. Those already using established licensing models such as the GPL, OFL or Creative Commons licensing should have no worries about continuing to use them. The Ubuntu Font Licence (UFL) and the SIL Open Font Licence (SIL OFL) are not identical and should not be confused with each other. Please read the terms precisely. The UFL is only intended as an interim license, and the overriding aim is to support the creation of a more suitable and generic libre font licence. As soon as such a licence is developed, the Ubuntu Font Family will migrate to it—made possible by copyright assignment in the interium. Between the OFL 1.1, and the UFL 1.0, the following changes are made to produce the Ubuntu Font Licence:
A visual demonstration of how these points were implemented can be found in the accompanying coloured diff between SIL OFL 1.1 and the Ubuntu Font Licence 1.0: ofl-1.1-ufl-1.0.diff.html