FreeType & Patents

The TrueType Bytecode Patents Have Expired!

Since May 2010, all patents related to bytecode hinting have expired worldwide. It it thus no longer necessary to disable the bytecode interpreter, and starting with FreeType version 2.4, it is enabled by default.

The affected patents were

ClearType Color Filtering Patent Issues

A survey from June 2007 shows no less than ten patents from Microsoft that cover ClearType.

Essentially, these patents cover several different things, which can be grossly sub-divided into

  • the process of displaying images where data is ‘mapped’ to individual (e.g., LCD) sub-pixels, instead of whole pixels,
  • the process of displaying said images after filtering them for various purposes, e.g., reducing color fringes, and
  • the process of dealing with metrics and spacing rounding in a sub-pixel world.

It is possible that Microsoft acquired other patents related to the field in the previous years.

Please note that above claims do not cover the enhanced interpretation of TrueType bytecode instructions as discussed in Greg Hitchcock's whitepaper.

Patent Claims, Prior Art, and Validity

Steve Gibson claims that the technique used by ClearType is a reinvention of a 20-years old thing used on the Apple II. His exact words are

Thus, Microsoft's ‘ClearType’ application of sub-pixel text rendering does not represent the dramatic breakthrough that they claim and it can not be the valid subject for intellectual property acquisition.

(emphasis added).

Unfortunately, we believe that Mr. Gibson doesn't understand patent law well. Under the current US regime, any minor improvement to a previous technique can be considered an ‘invention’ and ‘protected’ by a patent under the right circumstances (e.g., if it is not totally trivial). If we look at the first ClearType related patent mentioned above, we see that the Apple II Wozniak patent covering this machine's display technique is listed first in the patents' citations. This shows that both Microsoft and the patent examiner who granted the patents were aware of this ‘prior art’.

We are not trying to defend Microsoft here, just wanting to avoid feeding false hopes to people who would like to see the patent revoked.

Another popular view is that these patents are too general to be enforceable. Well, to be fair, some of the claims in these patents do indeed use rather vague descriptive terms (even for a patent lawyer or an ‘expert in the field’). This is absolutely not surprising, it is a direct consequence of how the patent game works.

We won't cover this in greater detail since there are many interesting pages on the subject. However, in case you invalidate a single patent claim (e.g., with prior art), that doesn't mean the whole patent is busted. Any other independent and dependent claim can still be enforced.

Some of these patents have up to 40 claims. Invalidating them is going to need serious prior-art, even if there are also strong chances to invalidate the most general claims in there. For example, many of the cheap LCD screens on digital cameras have used a screen where each pixel is either red, green, or blue, with colour images directly mapped to them; they have been doing it for years, even when displaying text or menus, and this corresponds exactly to what the most general claims cover. If we can find a proof that the technique was deployed before the patent's filing date, we could have valid prior art to bust these.

Possible Work-Arounds

People have proposed alternatives to the ClearType color filtering method. A very good example is the SubLCD technique, which employs a different way to use sub-pixels compared to Microsoft's ClearType implementation. Its author even says it doesn't infringe the ClearType patents.

Unfortunately, the FreeType team doesn't share this enthusiasm. The reason is precisely the very vague patent claims described previously. There is a non-negligible (even if small) chance that these claims also cover the SubLCD technique. The situation would probably be different if we could invalidate the broader patent claims, but this is not the case currently.

Does FreeType Implement Any of the Patented Techniques?

Technically, no. The patents cover the whole process of generating and displaying sub-pixel images. Since the font engine doesn't do the display part, it cannot infringe. Apart from that, FreeType has provided the capability of converting vector shapes into un-filtered sub-pixel images for a long time.

By default, FreeType's scan-line converter returns ‘gray’ sub-pixel images, where for each pixel the color components are equal (this is, R=G=B). The result is visually identical to gray anti-aliasing and cannot infringe any of the ClearType patents.

Similarly, the LCD-specific filtering API is disabled by default, which means that it returns an error and doesn't alter sub-pixel images.

You can override these limitations by activating option FT_CONFIG_OPTION_SUBPIXEL_RENDERING in FreeType's ftoption.h configuration file, but you should do that at your own risk.

Last update: 13-Feb-2018