Artist monopolises new black

Recently a new ‘colour’ was created. A new shade of black, the blackest black ever produced. Made of carbon nanotubes it seems to not only not reflect light but to suck light in, like the frictionless black spaceship in the Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. News reports say that artists are in an uproar that artist Anish Kapoor has a monopoly on this new colour because its creators, Surrey Nanosystems gave him exclusive rights to use it. How can anyone have a monopoly on a colour?

It seems absurdly unjust that someone could own a colour, which means they can permit or prevent you from using it. How can it be illegal to use a colour? Yet a huge amount of investment time, money and intellect, went into inventing the process of creating it, so surely that confers some rights to it. Granting exclusive rights to just one artist seems needlessly mean, but the underlying principles of justice in this issue can be resolved pragmatically.

The Surrey Nanosystems website says that “Vantablack absorbs 99.965% of light (750nm wavelength)” and “Absorption works from UV (200-350 nm wavelength), through the visible (350-700nm) and into the far infrared (>16 microns) spectrum, with no spectral features.” Whatever it doesn’t absorb it reflects and that is its colour – though we tend to think of ‘black’ as an absence of colour because it absorbs so much. But because the light is either reflected or absorbed, it amounts to the same thing – an amount of frequencies of light reflected/absorbed. Nobody can ‘own’ the amount of light reflected or absorbed by something. You might as well try to own the range of light frequencies reflected by turquoise, sunflowers, slate, the sky, a rose, or anything. These things just are, as a property of the physical world. Nobody owns the ‘colour’ itself that is reflected/absorbed by the Vantablack material.

None the less, it’s not easy to make the carbon nanotubes that can absorb/reflect that range and amount of light. That’s technology, a set of know how, mechanisms, systems, etc – the sort of thing that we are accustomed to being covered by a intellectual property law, patents etc. The means of producing a substance that has this new black colour which Surry Nanosystems have developed can be ‘owned’ in the usual way, following established law. (Whether patent law and intellectual property is itself just is a whole different story.)

Lapis lazuli is an expensive material, and someone might patent a machine for grinding and mixing it, but that doesn’t stop any body else from saving up to buy the stone, and grinding and mixing it themself. The people of Tyre kept the source of purple secret for many years. The colouring of porcelain wise likewise a long running trade secret. But nobody ever owned the colours. There is nothing new about that.

It would be the decent thing to do for Surrey Nanosystems to allow other artists to use the material produced by their technology. It wouldn’t mean they have to release their intellectual property. But even if they don’t artists’ sense of principles and justice should not be shaken – nobody owns the new black. All they own is one way of making it. There’s nothing to stop artists finding their own ways to procure and mix their own materials to make the new black, or another new black.