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In the Adobe and Pantone dispute, creators are left in the dark

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

For digital designers, the company Pantone has always offered the gold standard - no pun intended - for color standardization. It works like this. All the colors in their collection have a certain code assigned to them. That ensures a color will look the same on and off the screen. British artist Stuart Semple explained the system like this.

STUART SEMPLE: So the best way I've got of describing it is a bit like a menu from a pizza place. So you can tell the pizza place you want No. 4, and it's the vegan special, and they know what you mean. So a Pantone reference is like that. It's a way of telling someone else what color you want.

RASCOE: Adobe, which houses software like Photoshop and Illustrator, has used this color-picking system since the '90s. But recent disagreements between Adobe and Pantone have left users in the dark about the future of color in their work. A piece in Wired reports it's the latest in a long-running dispute between the two companies. Pantone does now charge customers $15 a month for the use of their color library with certain Adobe apps.

SEMPLE: The fallout is when they paywall these colors and we can't use them, the work we made before turns black, and it takes away all the Pantone information. So they're kind of holding our own art hostage. It's an awful thing.

RASCOE: But Pantone doesn't own all these colors per se. It's a bit more complicated than that.

AARON PERZANOWSKI: Pantone has no underlying intellectual property rights when it comes to individual colors. You can't copyright a color under U.S. law.

RASCOE: That's Aaron Perzanowski. He's a law professor at the University of Michigan.

PERZANOWSKI: They don't have the kinds of relationships to the colors that we would normally expect to see in a trademark claim. You know, Tiffany's unique shade of blue or the green color that we associate with John Deere tractors - we don't have any of that here.

RASCOE: He said that what Pantone does have is their color library - the system of standardization which the company could claim copyright over. And the challenge is that there's no real substitute in the market right now.

PERZANOWSKI: When it comes to software, but also when it comes to all sorts of other devices, there is this sort of constant connection to the manufacturer that allows them to exercise this kind of control. And I think we are going to continue to head in that direction until consumers decide they've had enough.

RASCOE: And so Semple is fighting back. He created Freetone, a plug-in of 1,280 colors that are, in his words, extremely Pantone-ish.

SEMPLE: I think we've had nearly 30,000 downloads now and so many people just saying it saved their graphic design business, they're really glad that I did it. And it's just really beautiful to see everybody sort of getting behind it and taking a stand against this greed.

RASCOE: That was artist Stuart Semple and law professor Aaron Perzanowski. And we did reach out to both companies for comment. Adobe says, quote, "Pantone decided to change its business model." And, Adobe says, they are looking at ways to lessen the impact on customers who have access to up to 14 color books through its cloud subscriptions. Pantone says a license Adobe held for Pantone libraries has expired and Pantone's value is, quote, "indispensable for more advanced color work." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.