Free Culture in Evolution: Openclipart and The Open Font Library

Openclipart and The Open Font Library


Compared with free software, free culture is often overlooked; however, once you start looking around the Openclipart and Open Font Library sites – two of the oldest and most successful free culture sites – you soon start to realize that free culture has evolved right alongside free software, providing free content to use with free tools.

The Free Culture Movement is an informal social movement that encourages the release of creative works under free licenses that allow them to be redistributed and remixed. Heavily influenced by Creative Commons and the writings of Lawrence Lessig, it tends to receive public attention only when well-known artists dabble in it.

By contrast, the Openclipart and Open Font Library are twin sites that approach free culture from the opposite end of the spectrum. Instead of being about the already famous, their goal is to provide a place for artists at all stages of their careers to publish their work and to provide a repository that graphic designers can dip into as needed.

The two sites were founded in 2004 by Jon Phillips, one of the original Inkscape developers. Gradually improved over the years, the two sites have long since become one of the major sources for original, free-licensed vectorized graphics and fonts. Today it is run by Fabricatorz, a company founded by Phillips that does design work for such clients as Mozilla, Google, and Creative Commons.

Users must register to upload their work to the sites, but, in contrast to the most publicized examples of free culture, a surprising number choose to use pseudonyms. So long as the uploads are free-licensed or public domain, that is fine with Fabricatorz.

“We respect our users’ anonymity or however they choose to identify themselves,” says Christopher Adams, one of the curators for the site. “We don’t have any interest in mining personal data.”


Originally begun as a collection of vector graphic flags, Openclipart quickly became a general clipart collection. According to Adams, today the site holds just fewer than 50,000 pieces of clipart, with as many as several thousand new contributions per month.

Adams attributes this success to the growing interest in vectorized graphics and SVG support in modern browsers. Undoubtedly, he is right, although some of the credit must also go to the insistence that all uploads be in the public domain, which allows contributors and downloaders alike to ignore the intricacies of licensing that free software and culture contributions sometimes get bogged down in.

Additionally, the site offers several ways for users to navigate through the thousands of contributions. New, favorite, and seasonal art are featured on the front page and rotated regularly. Some art is grouped into collections by topics or published as the source for coloring books.

Alternatively, the homepage at top right lists special pages for groups, ranging from Church and Teachers to Lovers and Archaelogists. The same list also includes pages for specific applications, such as MS Office and PhotoShop. The LibreOffice page, for example, includes a link to the extension, which integrates the Openclipart library with the office suite, along with some general troubleshooting comments.

In fact, the site includes an Apps page that lists extensions for both free and proprietary software. The pages includes links to plugins for Moodle, the popular educational content management system, as well as for Android devices, iPhones, and iPads.

If there is a way to target an audience or a technology that Openclipart does not mention, it must new or extremely obscure. If Openclipart was a commercial site, you would have to say that it has gone to great effort to identify its market segments and make the site accessible for each one.

Open Font Library

Founded by Phillips and Bryce Harrington, another Inkscape developer, the Open Font Library faces difficulties that Openclipart never shared. Although the emphasis on Free vectorized graphics was unusual for 2004, the general idea of clipart itself was already well established.

By contrast, good-quality free fonts were almost unheard of. Free software was transitioning from being a community of developers to the more general audience it has become today, and few users were interested in good-quality fonts.

The situation is different today, with most major distributions carrying high-quality free fonts like Gentium in their repositories. However, according to Adams, font designers remain relatively reluctant to give their work a free license. While a piece of clipart might be the work of a few hours, “A well-designed font of even a single weight and style carries an enormous up-front cost of labor before it can be of any use to an end user. This cost must be multiplied when adding bold, italics, or support for additional languages or alphabets. Fonts combine the technical sophistication of software with the aesthetic demands of a seemingly esoteric art. Given this, font designers do tend to be more protective of their work.”

In particular, font designers are frequently concerned that inferior copies or bundling with poor-quality fonts might affect the reputation of their work.

However, in the last decade, such concerns have been addressed by the SIL Open Font License and the GPL font exception, and today more free-licensed fonts are available than ever before. At the same time, the ability to link to an online font in CSS has made the demand for fonts greater than ever.

Today, the Open Font Library is still small compared with Openclipart, but at 269 font, it is one of the main sources of free fonts on the Internet. Perhaps inevitably, its look is more sober, too, although some of the same features, such featured and new items on the front page, and divisions into categories are used on both sites.

First-time users will probably be most interested in the Serif and Sans-serif categories, which include the sorts of fonts used in most documents, but the site also includes a healthy collections of Monospaced, Handwriting, and Display fonts, as well as Dingbat and even a few Blackletter fonts. Users can also browse by license, which can be useful for those worried about compatibility with bundled software.

Witnessing Evolution

The evolution of Openclipart and the Free Font Library reflects the growth of free culture in general. Less than a decade ago, the idea that artists or font-designers would donate their work for others to modify or use seemed dubious. Now, the content of such sites shows that the concept of free culture has become, if not completely commonplace, then at least a reality in many people’s lives.

Moreover, looking back, Phillips sees the sites as more than conveniences that “help people get their jobs done faster.” Instead, he sees such solid bodies of free culture as a direct encouragement for more.

“Free Software and then Creative Commons taught us that making our creative works free will encourage more use,” he says. “Now we try to make sure that there is a solid value and growth cycle by helping artists make better clip art [and fonts] and matching that with a broader audience of users.”

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