Tegan Tuesday: A Semple Solution to Corporate Greed

It has been 0 days since fresh nonsense from Adobe. This round of unfriendly-to-users action is a team effort between Adobe and Pantone, both. Effective today, Pantone colors are paywalled and any programs that run with Pantone colors, like Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator, no longer work without a monthly subscription (the author of the above tweet mistook USD for AUSD, and later corrected to say that the price is AUS$21/month, or US$15). This is part of a larger trend from tech in general and Adobe in particular. You can only use the approved programs our technofeudal overlords tell us to use, in the manner that they require us to do so, or you are not only courting being out of step with industry standards (like the Pantone/Adobe situation) but you are in danger of felony charges if you alter a program to better suit your uses or budget.

A full breakdown of the situation by Cory Doctorow can be read here, and I do recommend reading his work if you haven’t yet – he’s probably one of my favorite non-fiction writers today. For this post, the short answer on why this is so tragic for digital artists requires looking into both Adobe and Pantone as companies and integral components of modern visual art.

It should be well-understood at this point that Adobe is a household name for digital image 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 buried, and Adobe has always been one of the worst offenders. This means that any changes to the program or the licensing go into effect immediately with no option to roll back to a previous version. Funnily enough, the first place that I’d ever heard about the old trick of changing the clock on your computer to a time before your license expired was in order to use Adobe products. The way Adobe got around this well-known hack? They got rid of the ability to use the program without web access so there’s no opting out of updates and license expirations. I’ve always been a little resentful when I lose a sneaky little computer trick, and Adobe’s been in my black books for decades for this and similar moves against users. It’s also fairly expensive AND the industry standard. Gotta love monopolies; Adobe also has the same hobby as other monopolies, buying their competition.

Why is Pantone in particular so important? The fact is that they have been the industry standard for physical and digital prints since the 1960s (even colored filters and films for stage lights are often described and ordered using Pantone colors). Part of working with Pantone is a very specific color blend, and, for physical printing, even the formula for making the ink or pigment. The company and their proprietary color system have been deeply embedded into every field that cares which particular red goes where. As Doctorow points out in his article on the situation, however, it also goes beyond that. Normal print is based around the combination of Cyan-Magenta-Yellow-blacK, or CMYK.

A strip from webcomic Johnny Wander, showing how with the addition of a cyan collar, their black cat ‘Rook’ is fully CMYK compliant with yellow eyes and ID tag, and magenta mouth and toe beans.

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 industry uses, Pantone is also fairly important culturally. Since 2000 the company has declared a Color of the Year (2022 is Very Peri) which impacts interior design, fashion, and cosmetics. Pantone colors are also specified for country flags, to ensure ‘brand standard’ across printing and manufacturing of materials for or with flags (the US flag uses Blue PMS 282 and Red PMS 193, also known as #002868 and #BF0A30 in hex). Pantone and its proprietary color system would be incredibly difficult to root out of modern culture, which means this move to a subscription model is devastating.

Unsurprisingly, many guides or alternatives around Pantone restrictions have already sprung up. A number of designers on Twitter were wondering if this is perhaps their push to move away from Adobe products and give Krita a go. This has the layered effect of keeping your new products out of step with the industry, potentially losing old work, and requires 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 shop made news when he protested Aneesh Khapoor’s copyrighting of ‘Vantablack,’ a proprietary “blackest black to ever black” pigment that was matte, absorbed nearly all light, and was also fairly toxic. Semple has since released three non-toxic versions of a  “Blackest Black,” the “Pinkest Pink,” the “Glitteriest Glitter,” and a number of other proprietary colors like “TIFF” (a Tiffany blue knock-off) and “Easy Klein” (an Yves Klein blue knock-off). The mission statement of his company, Culture Hustle, is a quote from Semple:

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

The fact that all of his materials are non-toxic bears repeating, because at industrial chemistry levels of pigment innovation, that is really not the standard. Semple’s approach to art is to encourage and raise up other artists, and hope that they stay in the field a long time to make more art and devise innovative ways to use existing materials. You can’t do that if exposure needs to be limited because of toxicity. All of this means that it makes sense that Semple, the champion of artists everywhere for open access to materials and colors, would create a Pantone clone. It’s called Freetone, because of course it is, and it is free to download and use, forever.

Unlike a lot of the workarounds linked above, Freetone is a one-to-one substitution for Pantone that has the full portfolio of colors and uses the same number identification system. Any program that uses Pantone colors can use Freetone seamlessly. The goal was to be as helpful and immediately useful as possible, and I think that Semple achieved that. But this is only a stopgap until Adobe tightens its walls and makes it harder to import different third-party color portfolios. It’s a never-ending arms race against companies who want to raise the walls and narrow the laneways of use, and I for one am tired to always have to worry about it. Wouldn’t it be nice if we reached a point again where when you bought a thing it stayed bought? Where your own work stayed yours? Here’s hoping for a brighter — more colorful? — future with fewer corporate monopolies steering the world.

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  1. xohjoh2n says

    Today, if you open a PSD (even one that’s 20 years old) with an obscure PANTONE colour, it will remove the colour and make it black.

    How can that be legal? Anish Kapoor owns black.

  2. sonofrojblake says

    First – well done Semple. Good work. This is an actually identical solution.

    You can’t do that if exposure needs to be limited because of toxicity

    This is simplistic and also just… wrong. Semple makes a point of saying his paints are non-toxic, and that’s great for children and amateurs. His paints are also just not as good (as in, not anywhere even close to) as Vantablack or other carbon nanotube alternatives. They’re not even as good as other “simple” super-black paints you can get. I know this because I bought some and tried it. I had a personal art project earlier this year to create a Disaster Area stuntship model. It occurred to me that with the latest generation of super-black paints, Ford Prefect’s description – “It’s so black, you can barely make out its shape. Light just falls into it” was now something you could actually make. So I got a 3d model of the stuntship, had it printed twice, and painted one of the models conventionally, with black acrylic paint, some custom decals with the band logo, and silver and blue and orange and yellow detailing on fiddly bits and engines. The other model, to be mounted side by side with that one, was to be in just Vantablack, or similar. So of course I shopped with Semple first – he’s the loudest alternative. And his Black 3.0 is indeed blacker than the £3 tube of acrylic black I bought at the store. But it’s nowhere near as black as Musou Black, another alternative, which looks great and makes your eyes hurt.

    And even that, the blackest black I could buy, wouldn’t compare with a proper Vertically Aligned NanoTube Array black. And if you want, you can buy Singularity Black, even (especially?) if you’re not Anish Kapoor – the idea that Vantablack is a unique substance not available to the public is simply false. It’s just that a quarter litre, delivered to the UK, with shipping and taxes and import duty and whatever else, is going to cost you seven or eight HUNDRED quid. And then you’ll need a fume cupboard to paint in, because the solvent (tetrahydrofuran) is really nasty, and then you’ll need to cure the coating at at least 120 Celsius for a couple of minutes. In order to do that, you’ll need a substrate that’ll take that temperature, and I’m not convinced my PLA 3d print will. So you’d need to make the 3d print in something like metal, which would cost thousands. I’m not up for that, so it’s Musou Black, and that’s great.

    Now – if I was a millionaire, I’d have simply had the model printed in metal, got some Singularity Black, and got busy. As it is – I’m an amateur on a limited budget. I’m not bleating that I can’t afford the materials, and I’m certainly not complaining that they’re toxic. They are what they are because that’s what it takes to get that incredible effect – complete light absorption. If you really need that effect – if you’re building a space telescope, say – then you apply whatever chemistry is available. If you’re just making art – well, you have a choice.

    Semple’s a great self-publicist and his product is OK, but there is a little more to the Semple-as-little-guy-vs.-nasty-Vantablack-suppliers narrative than he makes out.

  3. Katydid says

    I bought Adobe CS6 a decade ago–the last one that was non-subscription. I refuse to pay for subscription software–not gaming, not Office, not Photoshop. Because my graphics computer is air gapped (that is, not connected to the internet), whatever I create in it can’t be changed. I can convert an image to a .png format and burn it to a CD, that CD can be brought to another computer and imported.

    This new scheme is a disaster for professional graphics producers, but for the home-graphics person, it’s all just a matter of hexidecimals. Nobody can copyright numbers, and (for example, to keep it easy) #0000FF (blue) is #000000. If you define #0000FF in your color swatch and then use it, I don’t think it can be changed by anyone.

    The bigger point, though, is when you subscribe to a service, your data is not your data. Same with storing data to the cloud.

  4. says

    Not speaking for Tegan here, but while you make some valid points about the paints, I think that his response to this Pantone stuff is pretty well in line with his public image, and seems to be an unequivocal good.

    And your description of how to use the “better” paints kind of underscores Tegan’s point – the equipment you need to safely use it absolutely makes it inaccessible for most people. Like you said – to actually use it, you’d need different and more expensive equipment, etc. It’s like saying a Tesla’s available to everyone (you just have to have a lot of money available to get it).

  5. sonofrojblake says

    his response to this Pantone stuff is pretty well in line with his public image, and seems to be an unequivocal good.

    That was why I made praising him literally the first line of my reply.

    It’s like saying a Tesla’s available to everyone

    No, it’s not like that, because Semple’s objection was NOT about the price of the coating. How could it be? He couldn’t buy it at ANY price.. THAT was what annoyed him. The fact it was toxic and his alternative isn’t is just another stick he uses to beat the nasty people who wouldn’t sell him the paint he wanted.

    Semple’s loud promotion of his own “Black 3.0” was always originally predicated on his annoyance that only Anish Kapoor has access to specifically Vantablack (the brand name of Surry NanoSystems’ coating) for specifically artistic purposes. Anyone who wants to use it to coat the inside of a telescope can get it without an issue. Anyone who wants to use one of the other available carbon nanotube coatings for artistic purposes is free to do so. Semple is absolutely NOT protesting the price.

    All of the above said: I’ve always admired what I take to be the piece of performance art that is his protest, especially the bit when you buy some of his paint where, in the terms and conditions, you have to attest that you are not Anish Kapoor and are not buying on behalf of him. It’s funny, and as noisy self-promotion, it absolutely works.

    On a related note: bronze and marble are both traditional materials for sculpture – but would you even know where to begin setting yourself up to be able to safely handle either? My inexpert guess would be that if you wanted to make a bronze cast of something, you’d be looking at minimum five figures setup cost before you even bought any materials.

    I’m all for as many people as possible making as much art as they like, but if you want the best materials, that comes at a cost. Bronze is best if you want to make sculptures, but other inferior alternatives are available, carbon nanotubes make the best blacks, but other inferior alternatives are available.

    (Side note: in many ways, carbon nanotubes make inferior paint. They’re a pig to apply, they’re toxic as all hell, they have to be cured, and they’re incredibly fragile – you can’t touch them at all. They’re really not worth the bother unless you NEED the performance, which I think is anothe reason CN manufacturers would rather not sell them to the public – you’d get endless complaints. )

  6. Katydid says

    @Abe; my bigger point was that games platforms (STEAM, for example) and general-use software (Microsoft Office suite) and PS went subscription-only, and clearly it never goes anywhere good.

    I’ve got Word 97 on my laptop; I bought the CD around 1998 or 1999 and have loaded it on whatever computer I am using. I bought it, and it’s mine to use. It does fine for general use but I’m thinking of upgrading to something open-source.

    I hate that all these products are so greedy now. Same with streaming channels. I have a collection of DVDs and I watch them when I want to, not when some streaming service allows it.

  7. says

    Steam isn’t subscription only. There are some games on it that use that model, but none of the ones I play.

    But yeah, I’ve stopped using Microsoft Office products for that same reason.

  8. lochaber says

    For games, I’ve been using GoG, and I’ve been pretty happy with it. All their stuff is DRM-free, and they occasionally give away free games.

    But, yeah, I’m pretty irritated at all this rent-seeking behavior.

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