Home Viral “Font Detectives” Use Their Expertise to Solve High Stakes Cases

“Font Detectives” Use Their Expertise to Solve High Stakes Cases


What does international political corruption have to do with type design? Normally, nothing—but that’s little consolation for the former prime minister of Pakistan. When Nawaz Sharif and his family came under scrutiny earlier this year thanks to revelations in the Panama Papers, the smoking gun in the case was a font. The prime minister’s daughter, Maryam Sharif, provided an exculpatory document that had been typeset in Calibri—a Microsoft font that was only released for general distribution nearly a year after the document had allegedly been signed and dated.

Glenn Fleishman is a freelance writer and editor, podcast host, recovering typesetter, and two-time Jeopardy! champion.


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A “Fontgate” raged. While Sharif’s supporters waged a Wikipedia war over the Calibri entry, type designer Thomas Phinney quietly dropped some history lessons about the typeface on Quora, and found himself caught in a maelstrom of global reporting. Phinney said that because it took a few years for Calibri to come into common use, people forget that it’s a new font. This has made Calibri a hot topic in document forgery as fakers fail to realize that this default Microsoft Word typeface will give itself away.

This wasn’t Phinney’s first forgery rodeo. He calls himself a font detective—an expert called upon in lawsuits and criminal cases to help determine documents’ authenticity based on forensic analysis of letterforms used, and sometimes the ways in which they appear on paper. Phinney even IDs each of his cases with a Sherlock-Holmesian title: The Dastardly Divorce, The Quarterback Conundrum, and The Presidential Plot.

Detecting fraud via fonts isn’t as sexy as sleuthing art forgery; it often involves tedious measurements with digital calipers, examinations under loupes and microscopes, charts that track the slight differences between two versions of the Times Roman face, or evidence that a particular form of office printer didn’t exist at the document’s dated execution.

Even so, such measurements can be worth millions—and can even be lucrative, for the handful of experts (maybe a dozen) who have hung out a font-detective shingle. Phinney had an expert declaration filed last month as part of a lawsuit against Justin Timberlake, will.i.am, their labels, and others. The suit is about a sample used in Timberlake’s 2006 “Damn Girl,” but the case might hinge on the size and clarity of the type on Timberlake’s CD cover. (How could that be? Read on.)

Phinney didn’t set out to be a font detective. For decades, he has largely focused on the intricate and exhaustive work of type design, a task that requires aesthetics, hand skills, and enormous patience to create the several hundred to thousands of distinct characters needed by modern users. He is also a natural storyteller, and speaks in a professorial style of infinitely bifurcating tales—one leads to another leads to another, all of them interesting. He was part of Adobe’s type design team in 1999 when a lawyer emailed looking for a font expert to help determine the validity of a will. “I was the only one who expressed an interest,” he says. In that case, in addition to font discrepancies, Phinney testified that a will dated in 1983 was printed by a high-resolution ink-jet printer, the Deskjet, which wasn’t a product until 1988.

Phinney was hooked, and he continues to say yes when asked, charging hefty fees for his time. He notes that about half of the cases for which he offers expert opinion—and especially those that consume the most time and money—have to do with the size of text. “The most common thing is, there’s some kind of legal document that has some kind of legal requirement to be a certain size,” he says.

Such details may be minuscule. Still, as Phinney’s case names indicate, these font capers can topple governments, force news anchors from office, defrock rabbis, and decide the fate of millions of dollars in lawsuits.

“Typographic design and type design was born out of forgery, because what Gutenberg was designing was born of the work of scribes,” says veteran typographer Allan Haley, who for 15 years was the director of words and letters at the Monotype type foundry. Haley says this partly in jest, but he explains that Gutenberg mimicked existing calligraphy used for bibles and other Church material to retain the authoritative nature of the previous text by adopting its form.

Haley’s point, too, is that a font detective has to know the history of type and printing to provide effective insight. Like Phinney, Haley has been tapped for his expertise in legal matters and less formal disputes; he recalls a situation in which a “high-end manufacturer of high-end fashion” accused a smaller firm of copying some distinctive letters in its logotype (a logo formed from letters).

His research discovered that, in fact, the opposite was true. Haley found that the smaller company had been using the type elements since the late 1800s, “and the high-end one hadn’t been around very long at all,” he says. The case was settled out of court, with the accused firm accepting the explanation that the bigger one had made a mistake.

(There’s a long history of lawsuits about typefaces being copied, too, which gets quickly into the murky territory of how, in the US, font designs can’t be easily copyrighted—but certain design elements may be painstakingly patented, and digital font files (as software) can be protected under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. These can lead to multi-million-dollar settlements, too. Steven Heller addressed this for Wired in 2015.)

Haley says that identifying an anachronistic or impossible font usage is “a matter of knowing the design, knowing the history of the typeface, [and] knowing the history of the typographic community.” And other type designers can be a help: “It’s still a relatively small community, so it’s pretty easy to reach out to somebody and ask, ‘Did you design it, then?’”
That was the case with the Sharif Calibri document, in which the typeface’s designer, Lucas de Groot, provided information to the press via his type foundry about Calibri’s deployment timeline—when it was in beta testing, and when it became available to a wider set of users. De Groot noted that the first commercial availability was November 30, 2006—several months after the document’s alleged date of execution.

Though many typefaces in common use were designed or are largely based on letterforms from 1500 to the 1930s, font detectives don’t have to conduct seances to ask questions about the most frequently used typefaces in legal cases. De Groot’s Calibri is among a number of typefaces designed since the 1980s for common office use by major operating system and productivity software makers. Companies like Apple, Google, and Microsoft hired designers like the prolific Matthew Carter (Georgia, Verdana, and many others) and Steve Matteson. Matteson created a number of widely used fonts for Kindle, Android, and Barnes & Noble’s Nook, and has also supervised mega-projects like Google’s massive 100,000-character-plus Noto fonts.

Matteson also worked on revisions to Monotype’s Times New Roman, a face that appeared in its first version in 1931 for the The Times of London under the supervision of legendary typographer Stanley Morison. Times exists across, well, time and space in many revisions and duplications, making it a particular favorite of font sleuths. That’s because forgers often lack the ability to navigate the ocean of possible Timeses and select the correct one—and its correct character spacing, too.

George W. Bush in the Texas Air National Guard, 1968 – 1973.

Wikimedia Commons/George Bush Presidential Library

This came up in one of the most widely known alleged forgery cases: the so-called Killian documents that surfaced in 2004 and were then released by CBS News, which reported on them. They purported to show that President George W. Bush, then running for re-election, had received special treatment in 1972 and 1973 from the Air National Guard to avoid some service commitments. The memos, which a source said the deceased Lt. Col. Jerry B. Killian had written at the time, appeared in some version of the Times face. But the general public only saw them as multi-generation photocopies that were then faxed and scanned for online display, and the originals destroyed.

It was obvious at once to Phinney and many others that the memos appeared with the rich proportional spacing of typesetting, rather than the monospacing or limited unit-based spacing typical of typewriters of the era. The fanciest electric typewriters at that time used a “type ball”—a sphere covered with letters in a given font that swiveled around as you typed, instead of individual typebars. These balls could be swapped out, allowing for different faces and sizes. However, most such typewriters still relied on monospaced fonts, in which every letter takes up the same width. This makes for a compressed “m” and a very wide “i”. Proportional spacing allows for different widths for each character, having them fit mostly snugly and legibly together.

It was unlikely that a typewriter fancy enough to both have a Times font ball for the typewriter and handle the limited proportional spacing some typewriters of the time could manage would have been at Killian’s offices. The memos also seemed to show kerning—the adjustment of spacing between specific pairs of letters—which is trivially easy in digital type, but completely unavailable on typewriters. Beyond the mechanics, Killian’s son said he could barely type, and his secretary at the time said she didn’t type the memos.

In this case, Phinney, using manuals for the proportional typewriters, created fonts that let him simulate how the memo would appear. These faces used a small number of units, like 5, 9, and 18, and all characters had to be expanded or compressed to fit within a division or the full width of those units. (An M would be 18 units wide, say, and a lower-case i might be just 5.) That required the typewriter maker to distort the letters to conform, making those styles more recognizable, too. He could find none with a good match even on spacing, much less the font. “No one could actually identify a device that could have produced those that was available at the time, other than actual typesetting,” he says.

Based on subtle variations, some uncovered by an expert who was trying to prove the Killian memos were legit, they were likely set not in Times New Roman from Monotype, which Microsoft distributed, but rather Times Roman from Linotype, a version licensed by Apple and Adobe. Phinney verified it to his own satisfaction by setting memos on a Macintosh with defaults, and seeing that it overlapped nearly perfectly. Others, like Charles Johnson of the Little Green Footballs blog, did the same.

A comparison of the Killian memo with Charles Johnson’s Microsoft Word document.

Wikimedia Commons

Phinney also noticed a small telltale: the use and misuse of the ordinal abbreviations “th” (as in 111th) and “st” (as in 1st). The “th” and “st” appear in three ways: in normal type following a number, in normal type after a space following the number, and in superscript. Phinney notes that Word auto-formats these abbreviations into superscripts. Typing a space prevents it. It appears as if the typist of the Killian documents used a space in some cases and forgot to delete it, and didn’t note in others that the superscript was inserted. “There are some superscript ‘ths’ as well” on type balls of the time, Phinney notes, but they didn’t look like that, and they required additional typing expertise.

Phinney calls the memos “blatant forgery,” although no smoking gun explanation or absolute proof has ever emerged. (Dan Rather, who narrated the segment and retired early after the incident, sued CBS, but the suit was ultimately dismissed.)

But Phinney puts his money where his mouth is. “I have a standing offer of a $1,000 reward out of my own pocket to anybody who can produce an office-level device that was available in 1972 that can replicate the relative line endings of those memos,” he says. He’s made this offer at many gatherings of type professionals, he says, and “nobody has ever tried to take me up on it.”

Most forgeries that experts expose aren’t very sophisticated to the discerning type eye. Phinney recounts his involvement in a case he calls The Respected Rabbi: A Long Island rabbi faced controversy among his congregation after his name failed to appear on a list of alumni from the school at which he said he’d obtained ordination. Phinney says he was told, too, that the rabbi “didn’t know his theology as well you might expect from a rabbi.”

After much tsorres, the rabbi presented a board member with a faxed copy of his proof of smicha, or ordination, issued in 1968. It was from an institution that had closed, and its records had been destroyed in a fire. Called in to examine the smicha, Phinney quickly noted that the entire document was in fancy, handwritten calligraphy, except the recipient’s name, which was set in a typeface that had a calligraphed feel.

Though diplomas and similar documents were once written by an expert hand, most have been printed en masse for centuries (Harvard started printing its in 1813) with a blank space left for the recipient’s name. That name is typically then added either via a calligrapher or a letterpress in the same font as the rest of the diploma. But a diploma written by hand with the blank filled in with a calligraphic printed typeface? That was extremely unlikely. Phinney also identified the face as Monotype Corsiva, a font released in the early 1990s, making the chronology impossible. That one fact seemed conclusive, but the board and congregation opted against action, Phinney says, especially when the rabbi threatened a lawsuit. Time passed, the board changed, and he moved on a few years later.

Even if the rabbi had matched the typeface perfectly, the document would still have had other tells. “If you only get the font right, you’re still far off from an authentic-looking result,” says Florian Hardwig, a Berlin-based graphic designer and an editor at the website Fonts In Use which shows off and identifies practical uses of typefaces. Until recently, Hardwig also routinely answered queries from people submitting examples of fonts they couldn’t recognize. He notes that digital typefaces regularly receive tiny upgrades and tweaks, and he maintains a huge library of fonts, operating systems, and software to archive as many interim versions as possible.

Hardwig says that it’s not just the design of a typeface that shows its age, but also subtle aspects, such as variations in spacing produced by different hot-metal typesetting systems; a lack of kerning between awkward letter pairs, such as “YA;” fake italic, in which letterforms are digitally slanted (impossible to do casually with analog type); unusual ligatures (sets of letters like “ffi,” only less common ones that wouldn’t have been available in most fonts); and even the pattern that ink spreads on paper.

“The letters were physically impressed into the paper via foundry type or hot-metal type from a Linotype machine,” Hardwig notes. “The design of letterforms would be slightly distorted or gain ink from the impressing.” Modern attempts to reproduce such printing are too sharp, thin, and precise. “If you want to be perfect, you really have to re-create the whole process,” Hardwig says.

We can never know quite how many documents are forged. We might have missed a lot of fakes over the years—after all, it’s only when disputes air in court or the media that they receive enough expert attention to expose them.

But Haley suspects that despite improved technology, forgery might be on the decline. “People are more aware of typefaces and fonts now, and that there can be a history to them,” he says. A person without typographic knowledge can use sites like WhatTheFont, which can match examples against a vast library held by MyFonts.

But as long as there’s money, power, or political gain at stake, the amateur and professional font detectives will continue to trot out their expertise in (type)facial recognition.

Phinney’s latest font case, the copyright suit brought against Justin Timberlake and others, doesn’t hinge on such fine points, even though it involves a typeface—Engravers—originally designed in 1899. Rather, the plaintiff claims that the songwriters obtained copyright from the wrong party, and then alleges they made an effort to obscure that by reproducing the permission at an illegibly small size. Because the defendants are relying on that rights notice in the CD’s liner notes—remember those?—and on a DVD case, its size becomes important. The plaintiffs assert that the tiny credit made it impossible for them or anyone else to identify that the song to which they claim full rights had been used with permission of a party that they claim lacked those rights.

With his calipers in hand, Phinney declared that the type was just five points tall—and printed gray on black. To add insult to visual injury, the gray wasn’t a solid color, but rather a dot pattern used to simulate colors, known as a halftone. In his declaration for the plaintiffs, he wrote, “Based on my analysis of the album and DVD liner notes, it is my opinion that the content of these liner notes is extremely difficult to read and is not intended to be read.”

The song in question appeared on an album that grossed over $30 million, according to the suit, plus a reported $130 million from the associated tour. Should the plaintiff prevail, it won’t topple a country’s leader—but illegible type could cost the defendants millions.

Editor’s note: This article originally referred incorrectly to a font named Cursiva. The correct name is Monotype Corsiva. From Phinney: “Monotype is an integral part of the name of the typeface, as it is in Monotype Modern or Monotype Sorts, Corsiva being a fairly generic Italian word for cursive or script.”




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