Arial Helvetica Went To Homerton College

Font Plagiarism From Acorn To Microsoft

Homerton is to Helvetica on Acorn RISC OS what Arial is to Helvetica on Microsoft Windows. For those unfamiliar with Helvetica, you could perhaps be forgiven, but in order to remind you it is a commonly used sans serif typeface designed by Max Miedinger and Edouard Hoffmann.

The cases for and against

Acorn would perhaps argue, if they were even slightly inclined (or not now defunct), that all Homerton shares with Helvetica is its metrics- the character spacings. The reason being that Homerton is designed to be used on Acorn raster devices as a WYSIWYG representation of the output on a PostScript printer. The shapes, they would likely claim, are their own. And this is borne out by close examination, although one can genuinely see a marked similarity. Certainly, Acorn offer no deception to cover up the fact their font is a tribute to Miedinger and Hoffmann: "Homerton is a version of the font Helvetica." (RISC OS 3 User Guide, Edition 4, p74.) Yet there is perhaps sufficient protection against charges of copyright, design or patent infringement, however, and legally Homerton is pretty safe. Not entirely honest or ethical, though perhaps forgivable given Acorn's size.

Which leaves Arial- another attempt to avoid a licence fee on Helvetica, though this time the infringement is harder to forgive. Which is perhaps why Arial is almost deliberately less similar to Helvetica than Homerton. Microsoft would doubtless argue that Arial was developed to provide optimized hand tuned bitmaps, and is overflowing with hinting appropriate to raster and printing devices alike- enhancements they can't easily make to a font they don't own the rights to. But this does not change the fact that Arial is Helvetica without a royalty paid, and Microsoft has no excuse that it couldn't afford a Helvetica licence. Their market is huge, and their coffers bulging.

Most font designers will probably agree that Microsoft's legal manouvering to avoid a lawsuit has lead to a serious design compromise: for those parts of Arial which are quite distinct from Helvetica (even moreso than Homerton) lack the style and finesse of the original font. Arial is a dog's breakfast compared with the elegance of Helvetica, for serifs (usually less distinct in a sans serif font, but there nonetheless) are chopped in some characters like "a" and lengthened in others, like "1". But if Arial is so different, why is it that, on screen in Windows at least, Helvetica is rendered as Arial? Clearly someone at Microsoft too realizes they are astoundingly similar.

A sense of humour

It's quite quaint that Acorn have named their big five fonts after university colleges of the University Of Cambridge, and suggest the names of the original fonts, perhaps in tribute, by inshrining the initial capital at the start of their cheap rip-off. Trinity, the Acorn Times, named for Trinity College. Homerton, our good friend, owes as much to Homerton College for its name as it does to Helvetica for its design. Corpus Christi College gives the gift of its name to the Acorn version of Courier. New Hall surrenders its name to the Acorn tribute to New Century Schoolbook. Pembroke College names the equivalent to Palatino. But poor Selwyn College and Sidney Sussex College, perhaps through some evil Cambridge fraternity in-joke, have been relegated to giving their names to the symbol fonts like Zapf Dingbats. Even the old bitmap font that Acorn once used is some kind of derogatory twist on the hallowed halls of Peterhouse and its residents: Portrhouse (sic).

In this respect, it can safely be said that Microsoft have much less of a sense of humour, and don't even attempt to tribute the name of the original font. Perhaps this is a sign of respect, but I doubt it. It seems that Microsoft scheme to cover up the legacy of their fonts, in the hope that their dominance in the computer market will somehow give them power over the typography of the next generation. Let's hope not, or we may never see anti-aliasing used at small point sizes, merely for the fact that Microsoft couldn't program their way out of an open cardboard box.

Exit: Kasoft Typesetting; Archer

Kasoft is a registered trademark of Kasoft Software, owned by Kade Hansson. Arial, Helvetica, Homerton and Microsoft are also acknowledged as registered trademarks of parties other than the author.

Author and editor:

Kade "Archer" Hansson; e-mail:

Last updated: Friday 28th July 2000