IP of Color

Pantone was once upon a time the company with the book of color chips. In printing, I could ring up the printer and specify the colors on a page by using the Pantone numbers. It took all of the guesswork out of the conversation. I could say I want an image or text to use Pantone 232 and the printer would know exactly what color I want. Pantone 232, by the way, is the pink used in the Breast Cancer Awareness logos. When print media started to wobble Pantone got bold and created partnerships to build additional revenue streams. Did you know, your make up colors have Pantone color markers? Ever wonder why Brand A’s lipstick and Brand B’s lipstick are the same shade? It is because they are using Pantone colors to formulate their product.

Yes, colors are wavelengths but the combinations are formulas. Move further out you have more indigo move closer in on the length you have more blue. Pantone takes the millions of combinations, formulates the color, labels the color, and creates a universal standard. They did not invent the color, they invented the standardization of color communication. They locked into the process and the language we use to communicate the color. Pantone is providing a business of color matching.

The ethical debate begins with how can you own a color? Color is around us and is free for all, how can you actually own a color. In looking at the IP guidance from Pantone they are pretty vague around exactly what they own.


Pantone LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of X-Rite, Incorporated, is the world-renowned authority on color and provider of color systems and leading technology for the selection and accurate communication of color across a variety of industries. The PANTONE® name is known worldwide as the standard language for color communication from designer to manufacturer to retailer to customer.

The strongest point of their description is their notation around being known as the standard language for color communication.

If I say to you, I want to paint a house Army Green you have a general idea what color I an going to use. If I tell you I am going to paint the house Pantone 5535 you would immediately have a reference point for  the color I planned to use. Pantone does not own the color, they own the system of communication around the color.

Just to keep the conversation interesting and to make those of you anti IP even more crazy, I can take a Pantone color and own the color as it relates to my brand. Sticking to the use of Army Green, it does not mean no one can use Army Green but if I use IP laws and protect the color as my brand you could not pick up the same color and do the same activity I am engaged in without creating market confusion. Now, I am not talking about Army Green as a color to my house, I am actually talking about the use of Army Green by the military.  You could not pick up Army Green and launch your own Army Green Army without infringing on my ownership of Army Green in relation to my Army. Ok, I know, the color infringement would be the least of your worries if you were out to create an army but play along with my illustration.

To be a bit more practical we will use the illustration of Tiffany Blue. Pantone 1837.

When you see Pantone 1837 in print, online, in packaging and other media you know the color by the associated brand. Pantone 1837 is the language used to describe the formula. If you try to use Pantone 1837 in relation to a gift store or jewelry store it is not Pantone who will come after you but Tiffany because you are introducing market confusion.

So we are right back to square one, should companies or individuals be allowed to own color. I say, with limitations. You do not own Tiffany Blue you own the use of Tiffany Blue as it relates to the commercial enterprise.  Should Pantone color charts be free to all online? I say, no! Pantone created the language. Pay for their creation of the language if you want their color conversation.


One thought on “IP of Color”

  1. Hi Martha,
    I find this blog post fascinating, mostly because I never thought of color as a type of intellectual property. I especially appreciate how you describe that it is the “communication” behind color that is copyrightable, not necessarily the color itself.

    This approach seems to be the direct oppose of Tesla. Noelle shared in her blog post (http://nvmischenko.com/2016/07/06/ip-friend-or-foe/) that Tesla is now making their software open source while maintaining the patents for the products they develop. In essence, Tesla is applying their intellectual property rights to the product and not the process; meanwhile, Pantone applies their intellectual property rights to the process and not the product.

    At the conclusion of your post, you write, “Should Pantone color charts be free to all online? I say, no! Pantone created the language. Pay for their creation of the language if you want their color conversation.” Noelle, meanwhile, seems to hold the complete opposite opinion. I would be curious to hear you respond to Noelle’s post so that I can better understand your opinion about intellectual property.

    Fascinating stuff!


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