Communicating the written word

, by Molouk Y. Ba-Isa

Boutros International, headed by Mourad and Arlette Boutros, is a leader in the fields of Arabic typography, calligraphy and design. For more than 40 years, working globally, Boutros’ projects have ranged from the creation of Arabic typeface collections for internationally renowned software and design houses, to corporate Arabic logotypes and private commissions.

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During his formative years, Boutros was classically trained as an Arabic calligrapher. The development of the personal computer set him on a mission to specialize in projects that combined traditional calligraphic techniques with new technologies. His highly acclaimed books, “Arabic for Designers” and “Talking about Arabic,” aim to share his passion for design with a wider audience and his glorious calligraphy can be found in major institutions throughout the Arabic speaking world.

Before we go any further, it’s essential to clarify that Boutros is a designer of typefaces. Many people are confused between typefaces and fonts. The typographer Norbert Florendo has explained the difference succinctly: “Font is what you use and typeface is what you see.” Stephen Coles elaborates further: “When you talk about how much you like a tune, you don’t say: ‘That’s a great MP3.’ You say: ‘That’s a great song.’ The MP3 is the delivery mechanism, not the creative work. Just as in type, a font is the delivery mechanism and a typeface is the creative work.”

So Boutros’ typefaces are a form of graphic artistry, a creation of his own talent and imagination. He licenses his intellectual property to enable others to be expressive through written Arabic. And therein lies the problem. Many people don’t realize that just as they pay a fee to own a copy of a movie or a video game, they should pay a licensing fee to use a typeface.

Boutros was creating typefaces decades before the PC or the Internet. According to Boutros, in the early 1970s Arabic calligraphers and typographers used to design typeface in a size three to six times larger than the finished size that would be needed. Then the typeface would be reduced photographically to the required size, many copies would be printed on white glossy paper, and finally the characters would be cut out and pasted together by hand to form the word or sentence needed in a magazine or advertisement. It was a slow, labor intensive process.

Then, in 1976, the British company Letraset started work on a wide range of Arabic typefaces using a silk screen process. This made it much easier to use specialty typefaces in advertising, signage, headlines and other written creative content. Mourad and Arlette Boutros in collaboration with Letraset created the Arabic typeface, “Boutros Advertisers Naskh,” to work in harmony with English typefaces.

“The design is based on the classical Naskh style, respecting Arabic calligraphy and cultural rules,” explained Boutros. “The addition of linked straight lines to match the Latin baseline level is designed to achieve harmony when used alongside a Latin equivalent typeface such as Garamond, Palatino and Times Roman as well as Helvetica, Futura and Frutiger. The light and medium weights are suitable for body text. The other weights are suitable for headlines and sub-headings. The outline, shadow and inline versions can be used to give extra decoration to all types of communication materials.”

Boutros Advertisers Naskh became very popular particularly for indoor and outdoor signs at airports, offices and hospitals. It wasn’t long before the use of typefaces took an even bigger jump with the coming of software to handle word processing and graphic arts. Boutros should have become a multimillionaire because his typefaces were everywhere. That didn’t happen. Instead Boutros Advertisers Naskh became the most pirated typeface worldwide.

“People need to know that when they are downloading fonts from online sites claiming to offer free fonts, most of those offers are not legal,” said Boutros. “People should be prepared to respect other people’s creativity and accept that they have to pay for people’s creativity. Individuals would not be happy to go to an office and work without pay. Creative people are not happy when they see individuals and businesses using the fruits of their labor, their creativity, without any compensation.”

Boutros is not upset with the poor boy in the developing world, who has no money to afford a typeface and steals one belonging to Boutros International for personal use. This is just survival. But if that same poor boy copies the font and sells it for profit, then that is piracy. Even worse in his opinion is when someone takes a typeface design, alters it slightly, gives it another name and then offers it as a legal font. Boutros showed Arab News an example from someone who has done exactly that with one of Boutros International’s typefaces.

He has had some amusement in recent years with one typeface that Boutros International created. The typeface has a small flaw in an otherwise beautiful character set. Any company who comes to Boutros International and requests licensing for that typeface is advised of the issue and instead is offered licensing for what Boutros considers to be a superior piece of work. Unfortunately, a significant number of companies don’t care about using typefaces legally and steal the flawed typeface. Since the flaw is minor, they may not even be aware of the problem or choose to overlook it, but the moment they use the typeface publicly, they are exposed to Boutros as thieves.

At the end of our discussion, Boutros did want to highlight one piracy issue which is growing and it is one that he lays at the feet of the US government.

“In nations on the US embargo list, it is impossible to buy licensed software created by American companies,” Boutros said. “I have been invited to speak at an upcoming conference in Syria about advertising. I am not sure if I will go, and if I do go what will I tell the audience? Pirated software and products are all over Syria. The reason is they need to use them and they are not allowed to buy them because of the embargo. What option do they have? Where is the right and the wrong in that situation?”

What does Boutros recommend to avoid intellectual property issues when it comes to software?

“Whenever you have the opportunity, use open source software,” he said. “I use OpenOffice and other programs with a General Public License (GNU GPL). Now there’s a lot of open source software that’s as good as commercial software. It’s a way to be sure you aren’t stealing someone’s creativity.”


Published by ©Arab News Feb 23, 2011 Updated: Feb 24, 2011