Pluralistic: 28 Oct 2022 Adobe steals your color

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A Pantone swatchbook; it slowly fades to grey, then to black.

Adobe steals your color (permalink)

When a company breaks a product you rely on – wrecking decades of work – it's natural to feel fury. Companies know this, so they try to deflect your rage by blaming their suppliers. Sometimes, it's suppliers who are at fault – but other times, there is plenty of blame to go around.

For example, when Apple deleted all the working VPNs from its Chinese App Store and backdoored its Chinese cloud servers, it blamed the Chinese government. But the Chinese state knew that Apple had locked its devices so that its Chinese customers couldn't install third-party apps.

That meant that an order to remove working VPNs and apps that used offshore clouds from the App Store would lock Apple customers into Chinese state surveillance. The order to block privacy tools was a completely foreseeable consequence of Apple's locked-down "ecosystem."

In 2013, Adobe started to shift its customers to the cloud, replacing apps like Photoshop and Illustrator with "Software as a Service" ("SaaS") versions that you would have to pay rent on, every month, month after month, forever. It's not hard to understand why this was an attractive proposition for Adobe!

Adobe, of course, billed its SaaS system as good for its customers – rather than paying thousands of dollars for its software up front, you could pay a few dollars (anywhere from $10-$50) every month instead. Eventually, of course, you'd end up paying more, assuming these were your professional tools, which you expected to use for the rest of your life.

For people who work in pre-press, a key part of their Adobe toolset is integration with Pantone. Pantone is a system for specifying color-matching. A Pantone number corresponds to a specific tint that's either made by mixing the four standard print colors (cyan, magenta, yellow and black, AKA "CMYK"), or by applying a "spot" color. Spot colors are added to print jobs after the normal CMYK passes – if you want a stripe of metallic gold or a blob of hot pink, you specify its Pantone number and the printer loads up a separate ink and runs your media through its printer one more time.

Pantone wants to license this system out, so it needs some kind of copyrightable element. There aren't many of these in the Pantone system! There's the trademark, but that's a very thin barrier. Trademark has a broad "nominative use" exception: it's not a trademark violation to say, "Pantone 448C corresponds to the hex color #4a412a."

Perhaps there's a copyright? Well yes, there's a "thin" database copyright on the Pantone values and their ink equivalents. Anyone selling a RIP or printer that translates Pantone numbers to inks almost certainly has to license Pantone's copyright there. And if you wanted to make an image-editing program that conveyed the ink data to a printer, you'd best take a license.

All of this is suddenly relevant because it appears that things have broken down between Adobe and Pantone. Rather than getting Pantone support bundled in with your Adobe apps, you must now pay $21/month for a Pantone plugin.

Remember, Adobe's apps have moved to the cloud. Any change that Adobe makes in its central servers ripples out to every Adobe user in the world instantaneously. If Adobe makes a change to its apps that you don't like, you can't just run an older version. SaaS vendors like to boast that with cloud-based apps, "you're always running the latest version!"

The next version of Adobe's apps will require you to pay that $21/month Pantone fee, or any Pantone-defined colors in your images will render as black. That's true whether you created the file last week or 20 years ago.

Doubtless, Adobe will blame Pantone for this, and it's true that Pantone's greed is the root cause here. But this is an utterly foreseeable result of Adobe's SaaS strategy. If Adobe's customers were all running their apps locally, a move like this on Pantone's part would simply cause every affected customer to run older versions of Adobe apps. Adobe wouldn't be able to sell any upgrades and Pantone wouldn't get any license fees.

But because Adobe is in the cloud, its customers don't have that option. Adobe doesn't have to have its users' backs because if it caves to Pantone, users will still have to rent its software every month, and because that is the "latest version," those users will also have to rent the Pantone plugin every month – forever.

What's more, while there may not be any licensable copyright in a file that simply says, "Color this pixel with Pantone 448C" (provided the program doesn't contain ink-mix descriptions), Adobe's other products – its RIPs and Postscript engines – do depend on licensable elements of Pantone, so the company can't afford to tell Pantone to go pound sand.

Like the Chinese government coming after Apple because they knew that any change that Apple made to its service would override its customers' choices, Pantone came after Adobe because they knew that SaaS insulated Adobe from its customers' wrath.

Adobe customers can't even switch to its main rival, Figma. Adobe's just dropped $20b to acquire that company and ensure that its customers can't punish it for selling out by changing vendors.

Pantone started out as a tech company: a way to reliably specify ink mixes in different prepress houses and print shops. Today, it's an "IP" company, where "IP" means "any law or policy that allows me to control the conduct of my customers, critics or competitors."

That's likewise true of Adobe. The move to SaaS is best understood as a means to exert control over Adobe's customers and competitors. Combined with anti-competitive killer acquisitions that gobble up any rival that manages to escape this control, and you have a hostage situation that other IP companies like Pantone can exploit.

A decade or so ago, Ginger Coons created Open Colour Standard, an attempt to make an interoperable alternative to Pantone. Alas, it seems dormant today:

Owning colors is a terrible idea and technically, it's not possible to do so. Neither UPS Brown nor John Deere Green are "owned" in any meaningful sense, but the companies certainly want you to believe that they are. Inspired by them and Pantone, people with IP brain-worms keep trying to turn colors into property:

The law is clear that colors aren't property, but by combining SaaS, copyright, trademark, and other tech and policies, it is becoming increasingly likely that some corporation will stealing the colors out from under our very eyes.

Hey look at this (permalink)

This day in history (permalink)

#15yrsago UK Minister detained at Dulles airport

#15yrsago Toronto Star runs paid “anti-counterfeiting” ad as news

#10yrsago Faulkner estate claims that quoting his novels in films is both a trademark and copyright infringement

#10yrsago Commensense about ebooks

#5yrsago Portuguese non-neutral ISP shows us what our Trumpian internet will look like

#5yrsago Spanish central government fires Catalonian government officials, police chiefs

#5yrsago Judge resigns and youth court shut down after baby is taken from mother over unpaid court fees

#1yrago Europe's trustbusters lose the plot: Filternet, made in Europe

#1yrago All of science gets a general index

#1yrago The new DRM-breaking exemptions just dropped

Colophon (permalink)

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