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Font Wars: A Story On Rivalry Between Type Foundries

I had thought of terms like “intellectual property” or “intellectual theft” as being of fairly recent provenance, so my eye was caught by the latter’s use in a headline of a 1930 edition of the American trade journal The American Printer.

The article it fronted proved to be equally intriguing, a response by the president of American Type Founders to a June 1929 article in the German journal Gebrauchsgraphik by the designer Rudolf Koch calling ATF a “highway robber of German intellectual property”. The issue was a typeface marketed by ATF earlier in 1929 called Rivoli.

Further Reading on SmashingMag: Link

Koch and the German typefoundry Klingspor asserted that Rivoli was no more than a copy of Koch’s 1922 design Koch Antiqua, also later known as Locarno, and released in America as Eve. Klingspor had already taken legal action for piracy against the Viennese foundry Karl Brendler und Sohne for their lookalike Radio Antiqua, but with no success.

Part of the sample of Wyss’ script offered by ATF to back their claim that Koch Antiqua was not its designer’s intellectual property
Wyss: Part of the sample of Wyss’ script offered by ATF to back their claim that Koch Antiqua was not its designer’s intellectual property. Neither of the two styles of ‘g’ resemble Koch’s however — to take just one example.

Koch Antiqua: Koch Antiqua, and uppercase letters of the italic.
Koch Antiqua: Koch Antiqua, and uppercase letters of the italic.

Klingspor lost that case, argued ATF, because far from Koch Antiqua being Koch’s or German intellectual property, both it and the Austrian face were based on the Lombardic penmanship of the Swiss calligrapher Urbanus Wyss, in particular from his 1549 book Libellus Valde Doctus. Klingspor could not claim theft of a design that was not theirs to begin with.

Whatever the truth of this, the most striking part of ATF’s broadside was their free admission that the similarity between Rivoli and Koch Antiqua/Eve, far from being accidental, was quite deliberate, Rivoli having been created and released both as a spoiler for the popular Eve but also as a “reprisal” face. Klingspor was partially owned by Stempel, whose 1925 catalogue contained what ATF claimed were “confessedly” fourteen type series of American origin, including what they deemed pirated versions of their own designs.

ATF’s comparison of the faces which accompanied their article.
Comparison: ATF’s comparison of the faces which accompanied their article, but not the truth, says David Pankow. What purported to be Wyss’ script was in fact Brendler and Sohne’s Radio Antiqua, printed heavily onto soft paper.

The ATF/Koch/Stempel “face-off” (for the full story see David Pankow, “A face by any other name is still my face: a tale of type piracy” Printing History 37, New York, 1998) was part of a savage turf war, fought by a company to defend its commercial position with arguably, only a decade after a world war, some national antagonism thrown in. ATF remained relatively conservative in its designs, whereas on their own doorstep the New York-based Continental Typefounders’ Association was importing type in which was enshrined the latest European stylistic developments. The acerbity of the language on both sides is unrestrained, while exacerbated by ATF’s suspicions that Continental were involved too, stoking the fires of the argument.

Type design is a business that has long been bedevilled by piracy and plagiarism, conscious or unconscious, licensing issues and scant or no legal protection for intellectual property. Some of the problems stem from the nature of the craft itself. Although in theory the number of ways you can position the points of say, a capital A, are myriad, the demands of legibility, style and fashion radically reduce the options, and alphabet designs are all using the same raw material.

As designer Dave Farey has described himself, facetiously but with an undercurrent of truth: “Nothing I have done is original, it’s all based on the 26 letters of the alphabet and the Arabic numerals.” Add to this revivals and redrawings of classic faces, and similarities are unavoidable. Type design is an art that is constantly echoing and alluding. Most people working in the graphic arts are, in a big part of their design psyche, fans. We will probably have been inspired to get started in the first place by seeing other people’s work that we absolutely love. It’s unavoidable that some of that DNA will crop up or be used consciously in our own work. In the area of type revivals you can at least credit your source in the type name; as designer Nick Shinn says on Typophile, “plagiarism means copying without recognition of the source.”

In today’s digital environment, do any of the attitudes and practices that marked the ATF quarrel persist? I asked Phil Garnham of London’s Fontsmith if he regarded other font companies as rivals:

“I think there is definitely a healthy and friendly rivalry between today’s independent digital foundries. Over the past few years, as designers have become more aware of the power of type in branding, particularly the possibilities of bespoke type and with the boom in type design education at Reading University and Type Media at the Hague, fresh competition is popping up on a monthly basis, which is a great thing for type design. It keeps us all on our toes and looking for new possibilities within our beloved alphabets.”

And spoilers? Phil feels the tactic might still be out there, but for his own part, like musicians who consciously don’t listen to other people’s music when writing and recording, he tries not to look too much at other work: “I think that it keeps me detached from other people’s ideas, and allows me to pursue mine, free from any subconscious involvement.”

But even then you can find that what you’ve done looks like something else: “Arguably, I think there are many designers tripping up in this way, even with the best intentions. I’ve been in this awkward position myself. You have to explore new proportions and alternative letterforms so you can bring something new to the market.”

Horatio: Square leg: Horatio with its restyled ‘R’ in the Letraset catalogue, available in three weights.
Square leg — Horatio with its restyled ‘R’ in the Letraset catalogue, available in three weights.

How close have people steered, consciously? Dave Farey recalls from his time working for Letraset how, among one selection of faces presented to the committee for inclusion in the dry transfer giant’s range was Harry, a design owned by the Visual Graphics Corporation. The committee loved it, but unfortunately permission hadn’t yet been obtained, and VGC refused. So Letraset produced Horatio: “I think the only thing we changed was the leg of the uppercase R,” Dave recalls, adding candidly, “Ours was worse.”

Heldustry: From the 1983 Compugraphic Type catalogue.
Heldustry: From the 1983 Compugraphic Type catalogue.

Clues could even be given in the font names — or not. Customers requesting Helvetica of 1980s photosetting companies which used the Compugraphic type library might be told: “We don’t have Helvetica but we do have Heldustry” — which looked, well, similar. The catalogue which digital company Bitstream produced at the start of the 1990s was helpful to customers unable to find familiar names: their Staccato 222, for instance, was the “Bitstream version of Mistral”, “Lapidary 333 is the Bitstream version of Perpetua”, Venetian 301 the “Bitstream version of Centaur”.

Staccato: From the Bitstream catalogue, early 1990s.
Staccato: From the Bitstream catalogue, early 1990s.

Some More “Face-Offs” Link

Memphis and Stymie Link

Memphis seen here in extra bold weight, and Stymie Bold.
Memphis: Memphis seen here in extra bold weight, and Stymie Bold.

1931 saw ATF squaring up to Stempel again, countering their Memphis slab serif with Stymie, the name being golf-talk for blocking your opponent’s line of play. ATF’s prolific Morris Fuller Benton based Stymie on his own Rockwell Antique, basically a repackaging of Litho Antique, whose owner the Inland Type Foundry had been taken over by ATF. According to Patricia Cost in her book The Bentons, Monotype then copied Rockwell Antique and called it, confusingly, Stymie Bold.

Jacno and Banco Link

The Typefaces Banco and Jacno
Rather than stealing the design, Excoffon exercised squatter’s rights in the territory — with style (above). The names were near anagrams, probably no coincidence.

French type legend Roger Excoffon’s employers, Fonderie Olive, were such rivals with Parisian foundry Deberny and Peignot that Excoffon examined with a magnifying glass a picture of their designer Marcel Jacno at work on his new self-named type. “Then I rapidly made some sketches for a few letters in a commercial type, not identical, but of the same family… The rest is a success story. Banco was used throughout the world… It’s the most shameful thing I ever did in my career.” (From Roger Excoffon et la Fonderie Olive, Sandra Chamaret, Julien Gineste and Sébastien Morlighem, Ypsilon Editeur, Paris, 2010.)

Starling Burgess vs. Stanley Morison Link

A comparison of Starling Burgess’ design (Lanston no.54) and Stanley Morison and Victor Lardent’s work on Times.
A comparison of Starling Burgess’ design (Lanston no.54) and Stanley Morison and Victor Lardent’s work on Times, as it appeared in Printing History 31/32 (1994).

According to a 1994 article by Mike Parker which appeared in Printing History, Times New Roman was an extremely close reproduction of a typeface designed years earlier by maverick genius boat and car designer Starling Burgess, which lay unpaid for and abandoned at Lanston Monotype until the design of the new face for The Times newspaper became problematic. Although Morison had the reputation among some for being a slippery operator, the story as presented seems hard to credit. Font Bureau offer a Mike Parker design called Starling.

Futura and Twentieth Century Link

Twentieth Century (above), Lanston Monotype’s response to Futura (below).
No cigar, but close, Twentieth Century (above), Lanston Monotype’s response to Futura (below).

Buffalo, NY-based foundry P22 have in their Lanston Type Company collection Twentieth Century, “Monotype’s answer to Futura”. They describe Sol Hess’ redrawing as “close”; as an attractive optional extra they have included digital recreations of some of Paul Renner’s original experimental characters for Futura.

Comic Sans and Chalkboard Link

Comic and Chalkboard.
Comic and Chalkboard: Both ideal for warning notices.

Apple’s OS X doesn’t supply you with the world’s favourite, Comic Sans, but you do get Chalkboard, which inhabits pretty much the same terrain.

Helvetica and Arial Link

Arial and Helvetica.
Hard to actually love perhaps, but Arial has certainly been well used, if only by default setting.

Arial, designed in 1982 by Robin Nicholas and Patricia Saunders, seems to attract a certain amount of online ill-feeling in “font hate” blogs these days on the grounds of being Microsoft’s Helvetica lookalike.

Does It Really Matter? Link

For the user, does any of this matter? If you like a font and it fits your purpose, then its provenance is irrelevant. And if it’s a new or recent design, then it comes with little or no backstory. But it’s always useful in terms of design rationale to investigate the background to your choice. Who designed it? When, and for whom — for a specific project in the first instance or for a company? If for a particular project, would those associations jar with how you’re planning to use it now, and does that matter? If it was designed originally for Monotype, is the one you’re planning to buy a Monotype font, or from someone else? What do Monotype offer as their version, and how does it compare? Stempel Garamond versus Simoncini Garamond, or Garamont?

Koch Rivoli.
Koch Rivoli: Channelling the spirit of Rudolf Koch and Willard T Sniffin.

And how has history served those original battling typefaces? Sebastian Carter in Twentieth Century Type Designers says of Koch Antiqua: “One of the most successful advertising faces of the inter-war period, still often used to suggest the vanishing luxury of ocean liners.” Though some of that usage might have been in reality Rivoli, Koch’s reputation as a type designer endures.

As does the name Rivoli, although its creator or draughtsman, the magnificently-named Willard T Sniffin, is less remembered. But for one offers as a free font Koch Rivoli (a pairing of names that would have the German designer spinning in the proverbial grave), an uppercase-only design that takes inspiration from the thick-thin double stroke of Koch’s italic uppercase — and Rivoli’s.


Footnotes Link

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Simon Loxley is a freelance graphic designer, author of Type: The Secret History Of Letters and the forthcoming Printer’s Devil: The Life And Work Of Frederic Warde. He is editor and designer of Ultrabold, the journal of St Bride Library, London.

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    Thanks for the interesting article, Simon. However, I did notice one oversight: unless I’m mistaken, I believe the Deberny and Peignot designer’s name — and the name of his eponymous typeface— is Jacno, not “Janco”.

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    Dan Reynolds

    May 14, 2012 6:02 pm

    Thanks for the enjoyable article! I do have one clarification, though. In the caption above, it is stated that the Memphis typeface was designed by Emil Weiss. In fact, it was designed by Rudolf Wolf.

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    Thomas Phinney

    May 15, 2012 12:54 am

    This piece covers an awful lot of ground. At least some of these details will be unfamiliar to all but the most learned typographic scholars and experts. Thanks for giving such a sweeping perspective!

    That being said, I have a few minor nits to pick (besides the couple above), and one major complaint.

    Heldustry is basically a cross between Helvetica and Eurostile, and not a Helvetica clone—Compugraphic had a Helvetica knockoff, Heldustry just wasn’t it!

    The Starling Burgess thing is just a hoax. It was a great tall tale, though, and I wish it were true.

    The coverage of Twentieth Century has a font sample that shows two different Futura knockoffs, but doesn’t compare either to Futura. Also why not mention that Twentieth Century was later redrawn to match the widths of Avant Garde, with the new version called Century Gothic?

    Finally, what bothers me the most: “For the user, does any of this matter? If you like a font and it fits your purpose, then its provenance is irrelevant.”

    This bald statement is currently offered with absolutely no justification. I can actually imagine many arguments to be made for not worrying about the provenance of type designs, and I’ve heard many of them. But in the absence of backing one or more of these arguments, this article simply presents a lot of designers’ choices that range from relatively benign to ethically dubious to reprehensible, and then tells us we shouldn’t worry about such things.

    I don’t by the theory that ethics are irrelevant to purchasing decisions. So as long as I like it, and it fits my need, it’s okay to buy goods that are stolen? How about made by slave labor? Or even the profits from which are used to finance all the political views I oppose the most? Clearly there are or at least can be other considerations, and some kind of justification is needed to explain why ethical considerations are irrelevant here.

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    Gerd Wippich

    May 15, 2012 12:29 pm

    This is not only a story on rivalry and just the tip of an iceberg. If you really want to dive into the cold water have a look at the web site of the german programmer and font expert Ulrich Stiehl: , subtilted: «The history of typefaces is the history of forgeries». A lot of documents are in English. May be you will find his arguments a bit on the edge, but imho his site is well worth a look.

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    I don’t see that Arial really competes with Helvetica as a typeface, except in that it is given away free with so many systems and apps. On the surface it might pass, or at least on a monitor, but the real objection to its continued hegemony is its inconsistency of style together with its numerous rather ugly characters which really glare out when seen in signage and display applications. Overall it is clearly based on Helvetica’s proportions, but some glyphs are more like attempts at Gill Sans, whilst the numerals especially, and various lower-case characters, owe more to the 1930s Grotesque.

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    Richard Fink

    May 19, 2012 11:41 pm

    @Thomas PHinney, who wrote:

    >some kind of justification is needed to explain why ethical considerations are irrelevant here.

    If you are objecting, I think it’s up to you to explain why ethical considerations are relevant.
    Not the other way around.
    I can’t think of a single piece of software I have ever bought or used where I stopped for one nanosecond to consider the “ethics” of using it and I don’t see any reason to change my modus operandi for fonts.
    What ethical code would you propose? What standards would you like applied?

    Wait, have I missed something? Are six year old children somewhere now being forced to edit vector images of letterforms upon threat of hunger?

    And how are we to square your statement with the fact that you are employed by Extensis, a company that sells software which enforces font-licensing contracts?
    (This doesn’t necessarily mean you are wrong, but it does mean you are far from a neutral observer. Your employer, at least, has money at stake. Will the ethics you are pushing help or hurt Extensis make more money?)

    Ethical considerations are irrelevant because the user of a typeface has neither the knowledge nor the time nor the inclination to make anything near an informed decision on such a thing. It either works or it doesn’t. Whether the font is freely found, or published as open-source, or shipped only after you acquiesce to a licensing agreement and pay X amount of dollars, all of that is a separate issue.
    Nobody is going to give a damn how the font came to be.

    Me I look for the best deal. But why I should care that the shape of the capital letter ‘K’ in one font looks suspiciously like the capital letter ‘K’ from another font with another name, beats the heck out of me.

    In a world where true human slavery still runs rampant, you are talking about the ethical considerations surrounding whether or not to use a particular typeface.
    Let’s ponder it: the ethical dimensions of choosing a typeface.
    And somebody is supposed to care about this? Why?
    Let’s get real.

    Blog: Readable Web
    Font Director: Kernest/Konstellations

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    Richard, your simplistic reality is at odds with that of design professionals.
    We operate in a metaculture in which the ethics of swiping are finely nuanced.
    Reputations exist at the boundary of homage and plagiarism.
    Advocacy occurs because morality changes over time.
    Gallery artists no longer appropriate ethnic culture or comic-book art with impunity.
    Shepard Fairey will always have an asterisk beside his name.
    The ethics of intellectual property are important to content creators, and many typographers, even if they have not thought too hard about the provenance of the types they use, prefer to use fonts from “brand name” designers and foundries who have solid reputations.
    And please, enough already with the “human slavery” rhetoric—the existence of atrocity doesn’t justify lesser evils, even something so trite, in your mind, as type design plagiarism.

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    Simon Loxley

    July 9, 2012 11:27 pm

    Thank you everyone for reading the article; just to reply to some of your points. Ken, it is indeed Jacno – a bit of a misunderstanding at the subediting stage. Thanks for pointing it out, I’m getting the good folk at Smashing to correct it. All my own doing on the other hand, Dan, was crediting Weiss as the designer of Memphis. My reference source gave it as such, but you have another person here in agreement with you; I’ll have to check that one out.

    Thomas: although I’m sure you’re right about Heldustry, I speak from personal experience of being offered it as a Helvetica substitute, and I think the fact that the first three letters of the name are identical says something about Compugrafic’s intentions.

    On your major point, I was speaking on an aesthetic level, and in terms of practical considerations for putting together a design. I didn’t touch on ethics as I was working on the premise that I didn’t need to state what I would consider the obvious to a readership such as Smashing’s. However they say you should never make assumptions, so maybe I should have done.

    Like you, in the wider context of buying products I always make the choice of a fair trade purchase where I can. But Richard makes a good point that it would be impossible for the consumer to investigate the background of every single thing they buy or every company they buy a service from. Were American buyers of Rivoli morally culpable?

    Apple’s publicity hasn’t been too great recently, but how many people I wonder have abandoned their products in protest?

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    Michael Hurley

    February 1, 2013 12:08 am

    I believe you have a minor error in your comparison of Comic Sans and Chalkboard. While it’s true that Chalkboard was released well after Comic Sans, Chalkboard is simply a lighter weight version of a previous Apple font, Casual, which was originally created for Apple’s Newton palmtop computer. The Newton was first released in around 1993, making Casual older than Comic Sans. Please see the uploaded graphic here ( ) for a comparison. The top line is Casual, the second Chalkboard and the third, Comic Sans. Note how similar Casual and Chalkboard are. There are only a few minor variations in letterform with the primary difference being the weight. Comic Sans, however, is clearly related but not nearly as exact.

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    Have you had the text in Figure 4 translated?
    Is it some fantastic poke, or just gibberish I find humorous?

    Google translates:
    “nihile es bilius al dilige pb cuidi”
    “You love nothing more remarkable al pb(lead) hammered out”

    Loved learning the evolution of ‘eve’. Thanks


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