iOS 7 & Third Party Fonts

As I wrote about in an earlier post, iOS 7’s new focus on typography has been an exciting factor in this project. Moreover, there are more fonts to work with than ever, built right into iOS 7 and helpfully catalogued at iosfonts.com.

Still, the built-in fonts are mostly utilitarian, and a mere drop in the bucket relative to the enormous diversity of typefaces out there in the world. Pretty early on in this project, we began gazing longingly at third party fonts we’d love to embed in this project to add visual interest and variation to the text we’d be displaying.

I started inquiring about licensing, and here’s an example of the license terms offered from a major foundry:

We can provide you with a license to distribute a single style of a font with unlimited units of a single iOS app for two years for $750. If you want to distribute two fonts the license fee is $1,500 for two years.”

So, to build a single font of theirs (in a single weight) into our app—for use in heading text or whatever—would cost $375 every year we distribute the app. If we need two weights, we’re up to $750/year, etc.

Let’s do some brutal math: let’s say we’re going to sell a $0.99 iOS app. We’d have to sell 541 copies of that app every year just to pay for that one font ($375 divided by $0.69). If our app was $10, we’d have to sell 54 copies. For a big budget A-list app, none of that’s a challenge. But how many A-list apps are there? Not many and certainly not ours.

I will give this particular foundry credit that these terms aren’t utterly unrealistic. If a font is really central to our app, we might be able to rationalize this expense. Otherwise, well, it depends.

A smaller foundry that produces some cute display fonts offered us two licensing options:

Subscription: $600 per year, per application/title, per style, per platform (add 25% of the fee for each additional platform. Maximum 4x)”

or

One-time fee: $3000 per application/title, per style, per platform (add 25% of the fee for each additional platform. Maximum 4x)”

Again, I’ll give this foundry credit for seeing a potential need for multiple license types. But, three grand to employ a display font in an app! Wow! (Note that you can license the same font for unlimited use on your own computers for well under $200.)

After making my inquiries, I felt like I was on the outside looking in. The cold, hard reality is that, today, the best fonts from the best designers are—by and large—out of reach for app developers like me.

But, aren’t these font designers just as much on the outside? I doubt there’s going to be a lot of font licensing for iOS 7 apps under these kinds of terms. Some thought has gone into these terms, but the parameters they used clearly have nothing to do with any real world app economics I know of. They’re not priced to sell. There’s no incentive to use more fonts than fewer—indeed, you’re penalized for fully employing font-families. The terms aren’t even written to capitalize on a “home run”, should an app they’re licensed for turn into the next Angry Birds. Rather, they seem written purely to dissuade their use. I would think that for foundries, that just means fewer customers and less business.

I love fonts. I’ve loved fonts for over thirty years, back before the Mac, when my only access to them was in the form of sheets of dry transfer letters. I would love to license great fonts from great font designers and show them off in my apps. I want to see a healthy, thriving market where font designers are rewarded for good work and iOS apps reflect the richness of the field.

This isn’t it.

I’m unsure what the solution is, but I’m sure the solution must be straightforward with a low barrier of entry. The best terms I’ve seen so far is the app license available for some—by no means all—of the fonts sold at myfonts.com: a flat $300 fee per font weight, per app, per platform. That’s still too expensive for many purposes, and their license still comes with various strings attached, all of which indicates the font industry believes there’s something special about apps that may not be so. Moreover, unlike web fonts, there are no special technical problems to solve here: font embedding in apps is generally trivial and secure in ways that web fonts are not.

Until something is done, I believe the full typographic potential of iOS apps will remain unrealized.

—Martin Doudoroff