Aaron Perzanowski, co-author End of ownership, researches intellectual and personal property law at the University of Michigan Law School. He says the situation shows “how the shift from products to services is eroding consumer ownership and putting us at the mercy of largely irresponsible companies.” It adds that Pantone has no underlying intellectual property rights to individual colors or the color libraries they are part of. “There is no copyright protection available for individual colors, nor are there limited trademark rights for specific colors,” says Perzanowski.
Semple’s anger is typical of the design community. “They did it in the worst possible way,” says Laura Sofia Heimann, a designer and developer from Germany who reverse engineering how he thinks Adobe plans to block users from using Pantone color swatches — and thus any potential avenues designers and users could pursue to try to subvert the blocks.
Over the weekend, Heimann researched how Adobe software reads the Pantone color palette. Her quick conclusion is that the company has measures in place to recognize whenever any Pantone color has been used in a file at any time. And when it finds that reference, it switches the colors to black.
Heimann believes it’s possible for users to work around this by removing any Pantone colors from the swatches used in the files and re-saving them – so their files don’t turn black. By removing Pantone colors from the file swatch, you convert them to traditional non-Pantone colors. “If you’re not using Pantone presets for color fidelity, you can remove the Pantone presets from the file and convert them to normal colors,” says Heimann.
The problem is that most people who use Pantone colors use them because printers around the world standardize color production using Pantone profiles. “I do a lot of screen printing,” says Semple. “I need a reliable reference for my printers to make sure we’re both talking about the same color.” And right now there is no real alternative solution. It’s an industry standard. “I can have a manufacturer in the Far East make something and say, ‘Blue is 660c,’ and they know what I’m talking about,” says Semple, referring to the Facebook-style Pantone code for blue. “That’s the whole point.
Still, Semple wants to see if it’s possible to avoid the Pantone color library entirely. On October 28, he released Freetone, a collection of 1,280 colors that mimic Pantone colors and can be installed into Adobe software as a plugin. In his online store, Semple is careful not to say that these are exact one-to-one replacements for Pantone colors, but only that they are “extremely Pantone” alternatives that are probably “indistinguishable” from the real thing. In the four days since its release, Freetone has been downloaded more than 22,000 times – evidence, says Semple, of how users feel that access to Pantone colors has been taken away from them.
Yet there is uncertainty as to exactly where the blame lies. “I think it’s about putting more pressure on Pantone to come to an agreement,” says Heimann. Adobe’s Di Leva did not respond when asked why the company implemented the block the way it did. “We operate in a world where we cannot use the products and services we rely on in isolation,” says Perzanowski. “They are tied to companies like Adobe, Apple and Tesla – who can dictate how we use them through a combination of software code, license terms and legal threats.”
However, in addition to increasing pressure on Pantone, this decision sacrifices user convenience and experience. “As a designer, it complicates everything,” says Heimann. “It’s much more difficult to hand off to other companies and other departments, and it adds more obstacles to the design work.” Heimann points out that this problem throws up hurdles that Pantone started out trying to avoid: the need to be physically present at the printing company to check that the end result matches the design.
He also says that Adobe needs to take its fair share of blame for the situation. “Adobe could easily add a button that converts the colors,” she says, pointing out that she moved and removed the colors in the file. “Nothing is stopping them. If they don’t deliver, I think it’s an indicator that Adobe is trying to create a public outcry at Pantone over this, so they have a better offer.” Heimann believes it’s wrong for users to be drawn into the controversy. “If Adobe and Pantone don’t agree and I get files changed because of that, it’s a little weird.”
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