Since the 1950s, the company Pantone has helped designers match the colors they see onscreen to what they see in the real world. This color standardization process means that, for example, a poster made in Adobe InDesign looks exactly the same when it’s printed out as a giant billboard. And it worked just fine—until last week, when everything went dark.
Scores of Photoshop and Illustrator users who have used certain Pantone color collections in their works have recently been confronted with the fallout of a disagreement between Adobe and Pantone. The result? Where once there were vibrant hues there is now only the color black.
The change is the latest twist in a long-running dispute between the design software giant and the color-standard-setting organization. In December 2021, Adobe announced it would be removing Pantone colors from its app. Why that happened was never certain; rumors spread that it was over the cost of including Pantone in Adobe software, while Pantone publicly said that it felt Adobe wasn’t keeping pace with the plethora of new colors it released. Adobe’s chief product officer, Scott Belsky, has tweeted that Pantone asked Adobe to remove the colors, “as they want to charge customers directly.”
The Pantone block was meant to be implemented earlier this year, but it appears Adobe has finally pulled the plug—unless users are willing to pay $15 a month for a license for Pantone color books. The latest shift has prompted a social media outcry among the design community. “I was really upset by it, because I’ve been using Pantone in my work for about 20 years,” says UK-based artist Stuart Semple. “I pay a fortune for the [Adobe] software suite,” he adds.
Semple’s studio has multiple licenses to the Adobe Creative Cloud, the suite of design apps from the company behind Photoshop and Illustrator, which moved to a subscription model in 2012 after decades as a single-purchase, permanent ownership product. It’s part of a broader shift across many industries toward upselling segments of products and switching to time-limited loans of content that first started with audio streaming and downloads.
Semple—who disliked Adobe's shift to a subscription-first product—also fears that this latest move to charge for Pantone colors will make it harder for young artists with less disposable income to use what is an important set of color palettes for anyone who wants to produce a printed product. “They’re literally holding the colors hostage,” he says. “You have to pay or you can’t see your work.”
Adobe spokesperson Erin Di Leva says that the company is “currently looking at ways to lessen the impact on our customers.” Iain Pike, senior global director of product and licensing at Pantone, says the company does not “determine the pricing, features, or user experience” offered by companies that use its color library, but that it collaborates with such companies “to create the best possible customer experience.”
Aaron Perzanowski, coauthor of The End of Ownership, researches intellectual and personal property law at the University of Michigan Law School. He says the standoff shows “how the shift from products to services erodes consumer ownership and puts us at the mercy of largely unaccountable companies.” He adds that Pantone has no underlying intellectual property rights when it comes to either individual colors, or the color libraries of which they are a part. “There’s no copyright protection available for individual colors, and the limited trademark rights for specific colors don’t apply here either,” Perzanowski says.
Semple’s anger is typical of the design community. “They’ve done it in the worst way possible,” says Laura Sofia Heimann, a designer and developer from Germany, who reverse engineered how she thinks Adobe plans to lock out users from utilizing Pantone color swatches—and therefore any potential routes that designers and users could follow to try and subvert the blocks.
Over the course of a weekend, Heimann probed how Adobe’s software reads the Pantone color palette. Her snap conclusion is that the company has measures in place to recognize whenever any Pantone color has been used in a file at any point in 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 files, then saving them again—avoiding their files going black. Removing the Pantone colors from a file’s swatches converts them to traditional, non-Pantone colors. “If you're not using the Pantone presets for color fidelity, you can remove the Pantone presets from your file to convert them to normal colors,” says Heimann.
The problem is that most people who use Pantone colors use them because printers worldwide standardize the production of colors by using Pantone profiles. “I make a lot of screenprints,” says Semple. “I need a reliable reference for my printers to ensure we’re both talking about the same color.” And right now there’s no real alternative solution. It’s an industry standard. “I can have a manufacturer in the Far East making something and say, ‘The blue is 660c,’ and they know what I’m talking about,” says Semple, referring to the Pantone code for a Facebook-style blue color. “That’s the whole point.”
Yet Semple is keen to see if it’s possible to shun Pantone’s library of colors entirely. On October 28, he released Freetone, a collection of 1,280 colors that mimic Pantone’s and can be installed into Adobe software as a plugin. Semple, on his online store, is careful to not say they’re exact one-to-one replacements of Pantone colors, only that they’re “extremely Pantoneish” alternatives that are arguably “indistinguishable” from the real ones. In the four days since its release, Freetone has been downloaded more than 22,000 times—vindication, Semple says, of how users feel about their access to Pantone colors being taken away from them.
Yet there’s uncertainty about where exactly the blame lies. “I think it’s about putting more pressure on Pantone to make a deal,” says Heimann. Adobe’s Di Leva did not respond to a query about why the company had implemented the block in the way it did. “We operate in a world in which the products and services we rely on are not ours to use independently,” says Perzanowski. “They are tethered to companies like Adobe, Apple, and Tesla—who get to dictate how we use them through a combination of software code, license terms, and legal threats.”
However, as well as adding pressure to Pantone, the decision sacrifices user convenience and experience. “As a designer, it makes everything more complicated,” says Heimann. “It makes handoff to other companies and other departments much more difficult, and adds more barriers for design work.” Heimann points out that the issue throws up barriers that Pantone came into existence to try and avoid: the need to be physically present at a print company in order to check that the end result matches the design.
She also says Adobe needs to take its fair share of the blame for the situation. “Adobe could easily add a button that converts the colors,” she says—pointing out that she has moved around and deleted the colors in the file. “There’s nothing preventing them. Them not adding that, to me, is an indicator that Adobe is trying to create a public outburst at Pantone for doing this, so they have a better deal.” Heimann feels it’s wrong for users to be dragged into the despute. “If Adobe and Pantone have a disagreement, and I have my files changed because of that, it’s a little bit weird.”