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Mathematics, fonts, free and money

In a déjà old interview (2000) by Advogato, Donald Knuth (TeX and Metafont author) answers in his sometimes-very-short sometimes-generous style. In the middle of these all interesting things, a few exchanges about relations between mathematics, fonts, free and money. Enough close to some parts of talks at Wroclaw, like the Dave Crossland's one, and some of our interviews, to serve as an intuitive background.

Advogato : There was a quote that you had in the "Mathematical Typography" essay reprinted in "Digital Typography" where you said, "Mathematics belongs to God."

Donald Knuth : Yes. When you have something expressed mathematically, I don't see how you can claim... In the context, that was about fonts. That was when I had defined the shape of the letter in terms of numbers. And once I've done that, I don't know how you're going to keep those numbers a secret...


Advogato : Fonts seem like a really interesting edge case for that argument, because a font is in some ways a mathematical formula, especially a TeX font, much more so than what came before, but it's also an artwork.

Donald Knuth : Absolutely. It absolutely requires great artistry. So the other part of this is that artists are traditionally not paid like scientists. Scientists are supported by the National Science Foundation to discover science, which benefits the human race. Artists, or font designers, are not supported by the National Font Foundation to develop fonts that are going to be beneficial to the human race. Fonts are beneficial to the human race, they just don't traditionally get supported that way. I don't know why. They're both important aspects of our life. It's just that one part has traditionally gotten funded by a royalty type mechanism and the other by public welfare grants for the whole country.

Advogato : Perhaps that has something to do with the absolute necessity in science to have open access to the results of others, that if you did science in a closed, proprietary framework that the disadvantages would be so clear.

Donald Knuth : With fonts, it was pretty clear to me.


Advogato : You've gotten a number of free fonts contributed by artists, in some cases very beautiful fonts, to TeX and to the Metafont project. In general, this has been a real struggle for open source development these days (OSP : in 2000!), to get free fonts. Do have any thoughts?

Donald Knuth : I think it's still part of this idea of how are the font designers going to get compensated for what they do. If they were like a scientist, then they've got their salary for doing their science. But as font designers, where do they get their salary? And musicians. It's just a matter of tradition as to how these people are getting paid.

Advogato : But how did you address those problems with the fonts that got contributed to TeX?

Donald Knuth : In my case, I hired research associates and they put their fonts out into the open. Or else, other people learned it and they did it for the love of it. Some of the excellent fonts came about because they were for Armenian and Ethiopian and so on, where there wasn't that much money. It was either them taking time and making the fonts or else their favorite language would be forever backwards, so I made tools by which they could do this. But in every case, the people who did it weren't relying on this for their income. If we had somebody who would commission fonts and pay the font designer, the font designer wouldn't be upset at all about having it open, as long as the font designer gets some support.

Advogato : And you did some of that.

Donald Knuth : Yeah. In fact, I worked with some of the absolute best type designers*, and they were thrilled by the idea that they could tell what they knew to students and have it published and everything. They weren't interested in closed stuff. They're interested in controlling the quality, that somebody isn't going to spoil it, but we could assure them of that.

Advogato : Right. Working with the creator of the software.

Donald Knuth : Yeah, if they didn't like the software, I could fix it for them.

(* Herman Zapf, Matthew Carter and lots of others known names has been around Knuth for some times thirty years ago, but the complex and difficult relations between designers and Metafont definitely need a separate and future post, I'm still a nàíve garçöñ...)