Lawyers for Typography

Brass plate; capital B - via FT site.A little while I ago, I blogged about the deservedly-popular site Typography for Lawyers; now a story by Joel Alas in the Financial Times (hat tip: The Faculty Lounge) brings news of lawyers for typography, or more to the point, potential litigation about the most (in)famous font type in the world – Times New Roman. First, some background: on Typography for Lawyers, Matthew explains that the Times New Roman font

has been with us since 1932, when the Times of London (the newspaper) hired font designer Stanley Morison to create a new text font, which was based on historical Dutch designs. Because the font was being used in a prominent daily paper, it quickly became very popular when it was released for general commercial use the following year.

Despite the success of the font, legal wrangling was not far behind (is it ever?) …

The FT story now brings news of more potential legal wrangling – Mike Parker, one of the world’s leading experts on type, claims that in 1904 William Starling Burgess created the font we now know as Times New Roman. Parker’s evidence is twofold. First, he has a series of 1904 drawings for font Number 54 signed by Burgess, prepared by him for the Lanston Monotype company to be used for company documents at the Burgess shipyard in Marblehead, Massachusetts. The order was later abandoned, but the font must have intrigued Lanston, since there seem to be subsequent real world examples of it, giving rise to Parker’s second piece of evidence: the brass pattern plate (above left) bearing a large capital letter B. This technology was not used after 1915 (long before the 1932 release of Morrison’s font), and Parker claims that the plate is of a Times New Roman capital B. As he tells the story, the font was subsequently rediscovered by Frank Hinman Pierpont who passed it on to Stanley Morison; he, in turn, relied on it to meet the difficult challenge of redesigning the font for the Times; and the final version was drawn for him and under his direction by Victor Lardent, a designer and draftsman at the Times. The rest, as they say, is history … Interestingly, according to the FT piece,

Morison never took credit for designing the font himself, but claims only to have “excogitated” it. Years after its release, he wrote of the only font that he is credited with designing: “It has the merit of not looking as if it had been designed by somebody in particular.”

Parker first made his claims about the role possibly played by William Starling Burgess in the history of the Times New Roman font in 1994, and the FT has picked up the story now because Parker has just released Starling, a new Times-like font, based on what he sees as the superior 1904 Burgess sketches. Moreover, according to the FT piece,

along with the Starling roman font, Parker has released a matching italic series. He says that in 1904 Burgess drew just five letters of an italic to accompany Number 54 before abandoning typography for aviation. Parker has taken it upon himself to finish the job and has spent the past few years carefully drawing the graceful slanted figures of a rich italic.

“Morison’s was a dog of an italic,” he says of the existing Times New Roman version, which he accepts was a Morison-Lardent creation. “It didn’t match the roman at all. It was a standard Monotype italic.” Now Parker has set out to rectify this by giving the world’s most popular font – no matter its name or creator – a deserving italic. Aside from the five inspirational characters, this is wholly Parker’s own work and, remarkably, it is his maiden typographic creation. Throughout his decades in the industry, Parker remained a creative administrator and researcher but was never himself a typographer.

And this, perhaps, is the real force behind Parker’s enthusiasm for the William Starling Burgess story: it has given him, for the first time, the chance to create a font of his own.

All of this raises the question, of course, not merely of whether there is going to be any litigation about this, but whether we can use the new Starling font, or whether it is so similar to Times that it comes within Matthew’s advice on Typography for Lawyers to avoid Times when-ever and where-ever possible?