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Colour criminals?

Updated: Apr 25, 2020

Nov 25 2019 on 'All Things Considered' / NPR, this conversation took place:


Hey, Ailsa, I want to try a thought exercise with you, OK?



SHAPIRO: When I say the word magenta, what's the first thing that pops into your head. CHANG: A Crayola crayon.

SHAPIRO: OK. Well, the wireless carrier T-Mobile is claiming in a new lawsuit that the color magenta is so inextricably linked to its brand that other companies...

CHANG: What?

'What?' is right. But this is no joke. It's real. Deutsche Telekom, the parent of T-Mobile (if you didn't already know), wanted to sue for the 'trademark' to a colour that is in just about every printer on earth. Magenta. Pantone Rhodamine Red U. I kid you not. Fresh off the heels of hearing about Hobby Lobby's treatment of its employees in light of COVID-19 -- and, quite honestly, if you look up Hobby Lobby, crimes, and violations in a browser, you'll be reading for a good long time -- I was struck by something I'd known for a while... but never thought about. Colour hoarders. While hoarding colour isn't as serious as, say, smuggling 5,500 artifacts out of Iraq (looking at you, again, Hobby Lobby), it is something I feel few people know about. And its practices do raise questions. As I look at the activities of my Lunarian super-companies in the Cardinal Machines series, and the cultures inside their domes, like The Formation and Cardinal itself, I'm informed by some of the thinking behind the criminal, and near criminal, corporate behaviours of today.

Magenta isn't alone.

There's also something called VANTA Black (for vertically aligned nanotube arrays). Around 2016 Surrey NanoSystems created the darkest, most light absorbing black (99.965% of visible light) seen by man. Or... not seen by man. In fact. Yes. I'm aware that black and white aren't technically colours. But they do some amazing looking and walking like ducks on my artist palette, and there's no better word to describe them. Almost as soon as VANTA reared its head in the media, an artist named Anish Kapoor (you may know him for his red observation tower for the 2012 Olympic games) took every last grain for himself. And by that I mean he signed an exclusive deal with the people and lab that created VANTA so that he could be the only artist ever to use it. The art world collectively lost its rag over this action, which seemed, and arguably was, an attempt to withhold a technological advancement in colour from the wider world. Any use of VANTA Black can be blocked or approved by one powerful man. Art, and the human culture that it shapes and reflects, was on fire for for this new idea, but once the contract was signed, VANTA Black was shut away from the majority of people on earth.

Well, until the evolution of The Blackest Black, anyway.

Fig. That's not a black dot. It's a ball. I've used Stuart Semple's Black 2 & 3. They're eerie.

The actions of corporations go largely unseen, such as Daniel Smith buying up the last ingredients to make quinacridone gold in the the world. Quin gold is a popular colour and they've made certain that, of all the people in the world, only they can supply it, effectively making it extinct before its time. They can turn the tap on. And turn it off.

So. Is this sort of thing a problem? Well, I, myself, write books and create paintings. I understand copyright and trademark as protections. Intellectual Property (IP) is part of my business. But is my writing and copyrighting an entire book, or creating a painting, the same as, say, 3M buying 'Canary Yellow', or Anish Kapoor owning every smidgeon of VANTA Black? That's a tough question on the face of it. And it has complexities. For example, VANTA Black doesn't occur in nature, is made by a patented process in a lab, and is actually a collection of carbon nanotubules for trapping light. It's a question weighty enough that courts of law must ponder, and decide it.

But I like to think of it this way. We're connecting right now because of the Internet. Where did the Internet come from, and... who owns it? Did you ever wonder?

The US Department of Defense created ARPANET (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network), the mother of the Internet. It funded the project in the late 1960s, and was responsible for about 70% of computer-science development around that time. One of the most influential people who headed up this project's advancement held a strong conviction that human beings, when they teamed up with computers, would become better decision-makers and that would lead to a better world.

The Internet that developed doesn't belong to any one person or company. There were no robber barons watching to snap it up. It was a new idea, and few expected it. And I mean brand new. In part, it grew organically. Now, where we go, it goes. It's become part of us. The advancement of humankind that's owed to the Internet? That belongs to all of us, and we're all responsible, therefore, for its stewardship and protection (in other words, for ourselves and our actions). And I tend to think that copyrighting things like colour is something highly similar. You may name it (quinacridone gold). You may copyright a specific formula for it (PO49). But can you own the colour yellow? Can you own it enough to prevent someone else from using it in a court of law?

I don't think you can. Like the Internet, yellow was a new idea once. It became a worldwide phenomenon. Everyone was in. By now, and by that means, it probably belongs more to itself than it ever can any one person, or company, and I keep that distinction in mind as I'm writing: something humanity makes, if we're being just, may ultimately belong entirely to itself.

Fig. VANTA Black.

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