A simple solution to corporate greed

It’s been 0 days since new nonsense from Adobe. This series of user-unfriendly actions is a team effort between Adobe and Pantone. As of today, Pantone colors are paid for and all programs that work with Pantone colors, like Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator, no longer work without a monthly subscription (the author of the tweet above confused USD with AUSD , and then corrected to say the price is AUS$21/month or US$15). It’s part of a larger trend in technology in general and Adobe in particular. You can only use approved programs that our technofeudal lords tell us to use, in the ways they ask us to, or you’re not just courting being out of step with industry standards (like the Pantone/Adobe situation) but you are in danger of criminal charges if you modify a program to better suit your uses or your budget.

A full analysis of the situation by Cory Doctorow can be read here, and I recommend that you read his work if you haven’t already – he’s probably one of my favorite non-fiction authors today. For this article, the short answer to why this is so tragic for digital artists requires examining both Adobe and Pantone as companies and integral components of modern visual art.

It should be understood at this point that Adobe is a household name for digital imaging software. However, for nearly a decade, Adobe has used a software-as-a-service (SaaS) model, with subscription fees forever. The days of just buying a program and being done with it are dead and gone, and Adobe has always been one of the worst offenders. This means that any modification of the program or the license takes effect immediately without the possibility of reverting to a previous version. Oddly enough, the first time I heard of the old trick of changing your computer’s clock to an hour before your license expired was to use Adobe products. How did Adobe circumvent this well-known hack? They got rid of the ability to use the program without web access, so there is no rollback of updates and license expirations. I’ve always been a bit irritated when I lose a sneaky little computer trick, and Adobe has been on my black books for decades for this and other similar actions against users. It’s also quite expensive AND the industry standard. Must love monopolies; Adobe also has the same hobby as other monopolies, buying up their competitors.

Why is Pantone in particular so important? The fact is, they’ve been the industry standard for physical and digital prints since the 1960s (even color filters and stage lighting films are often described and ordered using Pantone colors). Part of working with Pantone is very specific color mixing and, for physical printing, even the ink or pigment manufacturing formula. The company and its proprietary color system has been deeply entrenched in all areas that care about which particular red goes where. However, as Doctorow points out in his post on the situation, it also goes beyond that. Normal printing is based on the Cyan-Magenta-Yellow-Black or CMYK combination.

A comic by webcomic Johnny Wander, showing how, with the addition of a cyan collar, their black cat ‘Rook’ is fully CMYK compatible with yellow eyes and ID tag, and magenta beans on his mouth and toes.

But Pantone also uses over a thousand “spot colors” which can include fluorescents, metallics, pastels, and any number of colors not found in traditional CMYK printing. Beyond industrial uses, Pantone is also quite significant culturally. Since 2000, the company has declared a color of the year (2022 is Very Peri) that has an impact on interior decoration, fashion and cosmetics. Pantone colors are also specified for country flags, to ensure “brand standard” in the printing and manufacture of materials for or with flags (US flag uses PMS 282 Blue and PMS 193 Red , also known as #002868 and #BF0A30 in hexadecimal). Pantone and its proprietary color system would be incredibly difficult to eradicate from modern culture, which means this shift to a subscription model is devastating.

Unsurprisingly, many guides or alternatives around Pantone restrictions have already emerged. A number of designers on Twitter were wondering if this might be their desire to move away from Adobe products and give Krita a try. This has the effect of keeping your new products out of step with the industry, potentially losing old work, and requiring learning a new system at a professional level. But the colorful hero of the hour is, of course, your friend and mine, Stuart Semple.

Semple and his (extremely talented!) chemistry store made headlines when they protested Aneesh Khapoor’s copyright to ‘Vantablack’, an exclusive pigment ‘from blackest black to blackest ever’. which was matte, absorbed almost all the light, and was also quite toxic. Semple has since released three Nope-toxic version of a The blackest of blacks,” the “pinkest rose,” the “The most sparkling sequins“, and a number of other proprietary colors such as “TIFF” (a Tiffany blue counterfeit) and “small easy(an Yves Klein blue counterfeit). The mission statement of his company, Culture Hustle, is a quote from Semple:

I believe that art should be for everyone, that self-expression is a basic human right. To do this well, we need the best materials.

The fact that all of its materials are non-toxic is worth repeating, because at the industrial chemistry level of pigment innovation, i.e. really not the norm. Semple’s approach to art is to encourage and uplift other artists, and hopes they will stay in the field for a long time to make more art and devise innovative ways to use existing materials. You cannot do this if exposure needs to be limited due to toxicity. All of this means that it only makes sense that Semple, the champion of artists worldwide for open access to materials and colors, would create a Pantone clone. It’s called Freetone, because of course it is, and it’s free to download and use, forever.

Unlike many workarounds linked above, Freetone is a one-to-one substitution for Pantone that has the full color portfolio and uses the same digital ID system. Any program that uses Pantone colors can use Freetone seamlessly. The goal was to be as useful and immediately useful as possible, and I think Semple achieved that. But that’s only a stopgap until Adobe tightens its walls and makes it harder to import different third-party color portfolios. It’s an endless arms race against companies that want to raise walls and narrow avenues of use, and I for one am tired of always having to worry about it. Wouldn’t it be nice to reach a point again where when you buy something, it stays bought? Where did your own work remain yours? Hoping for a brighter – more colorful? – a future with fewer corporate monopolies ruling the world.


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