Dave Bernhard

Web Developer

📚 Reading: The Riddle-Master of Hed by Patricia A. McKillip

Avoiding font piracy on a Netlify-deployed static site


Spark|First lit on September 27, 2021Last stoked 10 months ago
5 min read
Table of contentsHow does font piracy fit in here?The ship has already sailed. Do the right thing anyway.How to not steal fonts (finally)Pop this in your package.json scriptsNetlify environment variables

Self-hosting web fonts is the best font-loading strategy for many websites. Done correctly, it yields the best performance results and gives you the most options and flexibility. The only reason to avoid it might be that you get too much control, which puts the onus of understanding how to optimise web fonts all on you. But that's another matter entirely.

And the idea is simple. Put the font files in a directory that serves assets to the client - usually public/. Then, in a css file, load the fonts with @font-face. The details of the implementation are outside of the scope of this post, but I would recommend this CSS tricks article if you need help.

The issue with this strategy comes when you have a static site - such as the one you're on now, which is built with Next.js - deployed on Netlify. (It's a fantastic service that I'm grateful for; this isn't really a critique.) The common wayPossibly the best way, or the only way. Certainly the path of least resistance and one with many DX benefits. to deploy static sites on Netlify, is to configure a branch to watch on GitHub. Any merge into that branch triggers a deployment and, in a flash, the new version of your site is built and deployed to the web.

In this model, your assets - fonts, images, favicon etc. - are also usually kept in a public/ or static/ directory. And since Netlify gets your project files from GitHub, those assets that you're choosing to host also need to go on GitHub.

How does font piracy fit in here?

Do you see the issue? Any assets, in this case fonts, pushed to a GitHub repository are now free for others to download. Which results in theft from a font foundry, and the hard work of a dedicated typographerLet's face it, they're all dedicated. Do you know how much work creating a font is?! earns them nothing.

The ship has already sailed. Do the right thing anyway.

In truth, this has already happened so many times that, short of a catastrophic event such as the sudden disappearance of GitHub as if waking from a beautiful dream, there's nothing we can do about it. It's too late to prevent font piracy. Which makes it all hte easier to go with the crowd and pop your fonts up on GitHub because it's just easier. But should you?

Though it might no longer help the font foundries to do so, I think there's still some value in finding another way. I doubt that anyone will take great notice, so you won't get bonus virtue-signalling points. And nobody will thank you, so you won't benefit from a heady philanthropic buzz. But, and I think this is much more important, you will be sending a signal to yourself. By bravely going down with this sinking ship (I should be making more of extending the piracy metaphor shouldn't I?), you will remind yourself that

while I frenetically mash away at my keyboard; while I Make. Magic. Happen; while I design systems that may indeed make the world a little bit better, it's worth always asking this: is what I'm doing right?

I'm not interested in an ethical debate here. You're a big boy/girl/other now and you have to decide what's right for yourself. But once you do, you've got to act accordingly. Even when it's inconvenient or even counter to your ambitions of world domination. And in the case of accidentally stealing fonts on your Netlify-hosted static site, it's not that hard.

How to not steal fonts (finally)

All credit for this approach goes to Fabian Schultz and his article on Dev.to. His solution is clever and simple (as the best often are):

  1. Host your fonts on a CDN in a .zip file
  2. In your build step, fetch the zip, and pop it in your public directory
  3. Unzip it there, then delete the zip
  4. Don't forget to put your fonts in your .gitignore!

Pop this in your package.json scripts

"scripts": {
    ...
    "fonts:fetch": "wget -O Fonts.zip $SECRET_FONTS_URL; unzip Fonts.zip -d ./public; rm Fonts.zip",
    "build": "npm run fonts:fetch && next build",
},

Netlify environment variables

$SECRET_FONTS_URL is an environment variable. You're going to have to tell Netlify about it. To do so, go to your site's dashboard on Netlify, and go to Site settings > Build & deploy > Environment. There, you can add the SECRET_FONTS_URL (without the $ dollar sign!) and set it to a url where you've hosted your fonts zip on a CDN. Ta-da 🎉