Vanta is the New Black?

Anish Kapoor’s “Cloud Gate” (2006) following the artist’s recent recoating in Vantablack
Anish Kapoor’s “Cloud Gate” (2006) following the artist’s recent recoating in Vantablack (photo courtesy City of Chicago | Image source:

Who owns the color red? That seems like an insane question—how can someone own a color?!

Of course, lots of things seem crazy until people do them. Like Anish Kapoor, who now has exclusive ownership of the world’s blackest black.

What Is The Blackest Black?

Good question! It’s a carbon nanotube material developed by Surrey Nanosystems in 2014 and it’s called Vantablack. It absorbs nearly 100% of light—it’s so dark our eyes can’t even really process it. In the photo below, Vantablack is spread in a thin layer over a piece of tin foil. That foil has the standard creases and wrinkles in it, but Vanta black reflects so little light that you can’t even see them. It’s like looking into a hole.

Aluminium foil coated in Vanta black (Image via Wikipedia)
Aluminium foil coated in Vantablack (Image via Wikipedia)

This substance has some interesting potential applications in a number of fields, including art. A substance this dark can be used to create entirely new visual effects, so lots of artists were excited about its discovery. Until, of course, Anish Kapoor got exclusive rights to use it in the art field.

You Can’t Own Red, But You Can Own Vanta black

So we know it’s crazy to think of buying and owning a color—it just doesn’t make any sense. It’s like owning the idea of water and claiming that no one else has the right to use it.

But what if we ask who has the right to produce and sell Dasani? Coca Cola doesn’t own “water,” but we recognize that only Coca Cola has the right to package it and sell it as Dasani. Who has the right to produce and sell Behr Haitian Flower paint? Behr may not own the color purple, but we recognize its ownership of the chemical formula and name of that particular shade.

That’s what’s happening with Vantablack. Kapoor doesn’t actually own the color black, he just has an exclusive legal right to that particular material for artistic purposes. The inventors of Vantablack have created something new and unique and valuable—that’s their intellectual property and, as a result, they feel they have the right to decide how it gets used.

Yves Klein paintings on display as part of Blue Revolution exhibition at the Mumok Museum in Vienna in 2007 (Samuel Kubani/AFP/Getty Images)
Yves Klein paintings on display as part of Blue Revolution exhibition at the Mumok Museum in Vienna in 2007 (Samuel Kubani/AFP/Getty Images)

There’s actually precedent for it in the art world—Yves Klein patented his famous International Klein Blue pigment in 1960. He didn’t try to patent the color blue, he just patented a formula for a particular shade. That meant no one else could use it without his permission.

The key here is that the intellectual property has to be unique—which is why you can’t try to patent, copyright, or trademark the generic color “red.” You need to have a unique formula and/or branding that’s different from anything else out there. In the case of International Klein Blue or Vantablack, the patent applies to the unique chemical processes and formulas used to make those materials. It’s those processes and formulas that are valuable. In the case of Behr’s Haitian Flower paint, the trademark covers the name and shade of the paint under Behr branding. Anyone can create paint that’s the same color, but they can’t call it Behr Haitian Flower. It’s the brand name that’s valuable, and the law is designed to prevent people from hijacking that value.

Artist Anish Kapoor and a bust covered in Vantablack compared to the original bust. | Image source: Google

I’ll Stop Wearing Black When They Make A Darker Color

It may seem a little nuts to try to patent a color—like Taylor Swift laying claim to catchphrases from her hit songs. However, it actually makes a lot of sense from a legal perspective. Some intangibles—like chemical formulas or song lyrics—have value. It makes sense that people want to protect that value, which means limiting how their intellectual property can be used. In this case, it means that no other artists are allowed to use Vantablack, period.

For now, Kapoor is the only artist in the world with access to the blackest black. Other artists who want to explore possible uses for Vantablack are simply out of luck—they don’t have access and there’s no way for them to get it. Speaking to the Daily Mail about Kapoor’s exclusive rights, artist Christian Furr says, “We should be able to use it. It isn’t right that it belongs to one man.” He and other artists with an interest in this blacker-than-black material are outraged that they’re shut out from using Vantablack, but there’s nothing they can do until the license expires. The good news is that this license isn’t going to set a precedent where one artist can own a particular color—Vantablack is a new type of material and the intellectual property rights are based on that fact, not the fact that it’s incredibly black. In other words, the rights are to the science and not the art.

Besides, you may not want to jump on the Vantablack train just yet—it turns out that exposure to those carbon nanotubes can cause serious health problems. Between Kapoor’s claims and the whole risk-of-dying thing, it looks like we’ll have to stick with the little slightly-less-than-black dresses already hanging in our closets.


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