FreieFarbe and the quest for free color communication

Color my Freedom

Article from Issue 229/2019

FreieFarbe is an association dedicated to promoting free standards for color graphics.

Colors and color palettes existed for many years before the arrival of modern computers, and the graphics industry developed methods for handling color that seem out of date by today's standards. Different organizations and vendors often have their own color palettes. In some cases, the formula necessary for creating a color is guarded as a trade secret. Some colors are even trademarked. An organization called freieFarbe (Free Color) has been working to modernize color specifications. FreieFarbe advocates open and free color communication. Their goal is to promote the use of mathematically defined color models and ISO standards for color specification and selection.

FreieFarbe was founded in Oldenburg, Germany in 2016. The founding members are German and Swiss professionals who use color in their work. The association now has around 50 members. The association's ecosystem includes commercial providers, as well as free projects such as Scribus and Gimp.

The Problem

The freieFarbe website gives an example based on the RAL color palette, a standard used for specifying colors for varnish, powder coatings, and plastics in Europe. An architect or designer can specify a RAL color, such as RAL 6011, but the options for recreating this color graphically are actually quite limited. The RAL color palette is not available on the computer without specialized software. Even if you were able to recreate the hue on your computer using computer-friendly RGB colors, you wouldn't be able to print it, because printer ink and printing devices don't map conveniently to the RAL color space, and the RGB spectrum itself is device-dependent, so it might not print the way it looks on your screen.

Professionals who work with colors often find themselves fighting their way out of a maze. Different color samples are used for printing than for paints, wall coverings, plastic films, and textiles. And the multitude of color systems are neither mutually compatible nor calculable. FreieFarbe believes that all colors should be specified mathematically using open formulas that are freely available to all users.

Holger Everding, the chair of freieFarbe e.V. [1], sees the association's mission as promoting open and free color communication. Many people who use colors for creative work view the fact that the color models in the commercial color collections are not based on mathematical formulas as one of the major problems. The models are not predictable and, in the opinion of the association members, this lack of definition is intentional – to avoid endangering the business models of these providers.

Color Marks

Trademark law imposes further restrictions on a free choice of colors. FreieFarbe lists 95 registered color marks in Germany alone. Examples include the well-known Telekom magenta and Milka purple. But organizations such as Nivea, UPS, Langenscheidt, and the Sparkasse chain of banks also protect their color marks. No competitor can use these colors for competing products.

For Holger Everding, this kind of commercial protectionism is heading in the wrong direction. "The world is colorful," Everding says, and colors are also there to express thoughts and feelings.

For the members of the association, this state of affairs is difficult to understand. "The only thing that really works with these commercial systems is their marketing," Everding adds.

FreieFarbe's aim is to point out alternatives to this mode of working. Their credo is: We see the future in freely available mathematical color models such as CIELAB or RGB. The advantages of free colors are huge, and the perspectives unbelievable. Holger Everding sees a real market niche in the development of predictable color models.

Calculated color systems such as RGB or CIELAB cannot be protected, and no one can prevent their propagation. It is also the association's aim to provide users with tips on how these systems can be deployed in all fields of application, and on how they can be leveraged to create colors that are fit for any purpose.

The organization relies on open standards that are integrated in modern computers. The computer is thus the ideal tool for working with color. FreieFarbe believes the computer can set colors free.

Scribus and Gimp

The association publishes templates and tools for popular open source programs. Gregory Pittman, a member of the Scribus development team, also wrote a script that can be used to create color value text tables and documents with color fields in Scribus [2]. The program then generates DIN A4 pages with 49 color patches each. You'll find the script on the amply-stocked freieFarbe download page [3].

Using the Scribus and Gimp programs, you can enter the color values directly, Everding explains. The Open Color Systems Collection (OCSC) 2.0, which is available for download for various programs, also contains color systems for installation in the free graphics programs Gimp, Calibra, Inkscape, and Krita.

The association does not offer its own program for calculating color models. Having their own tool is a desirable objective, according to Everding, but also one that the members have not yet been able to implement. The association does offer existing tools and aids under a Creative Commons license.

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