Adam Smith, Monopolies, Intellectual Property, and the Blackest Black

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Sarah Skwire for AdamSmithWorks

What does a recent controversy in the world of art materials illuminate about Adam Smith's perspective on monopolies and intellectual property?
Secrets in manufactures are capable of being longer kept than secrets in trade. A dyer who has found the means of producing a particular color with materials which cost only half the price of those commonly made use of, may, with good management, enjoy the advantage of his discovery as long as he lives, and even leave it as a legacy to his posterity. (WN I.vii.22)

As Virginia Postrel has recently reminded us, the history of textiles is the history of technology and economics. It is no surprise, then, that Adam Smith frequently turns to considerations of textiles and related arts in The Wealth of Nations. Whether it’s a quick history of innovations in textile manufacturing processes, a passing reference to Queen Elizabeth’s stockings, or his extended discussions of the protections created for the British wool trade, Smith is interested in, and interesting about, textiles. 

But there is more than antiquarian interest here. Smith’s attention, in the passage cited above, to questions of innovation and intellectual property and the profitability of new dyes seems startlingly apt to a current kerfuffle in the world of art. 

The context, for AdamSmithWorks readers who may not stay up to date on artistic squabbles, is this. In 2016, the engineers at Surrey NanoSystems took a specialty engineering product and figured out how to make a less expensive, more useful, spray-on version of it. The product, Vantablack, was the “blackest black.” It’s a black that gives the illusion, not of being a color that lies atop an object, but of being a void in space. It is a mind game, and it is fascinating to play with.

Naturally, artists wanted in.

Surrey NanoSystems made a deal with one of these artists, Anish Kapoor, and gave him exclusive rights to use Vantablack in his art. 

As any reader of Adam Smith could predict, Kapoor’s monopoly on the use of Vantablack raised hackles among Kapoor’s competitors. “The monopolists, by keeping the market constantly under-stocked, by never fully supplying the effectual demand, sell their commodities much above the natural price…” The price “is upon every occasion the highest which can be squeezed out of the buyers.” (I.vii.26-27) The monopolists in the story of Vantablack are not Surrey NanoSystems. They’re Kapoor. He bought exclusive rights to use Vantablack and was thus--other artists felt--able to demand an exorbitant price for any works he created using Vantablack, because there could be no competition. And they were angry.

Aside from all the economic things that monopolies do, they also make people mad. Even the famously reserved Adam Smith is unable to stay entirely detached when he considers monopolies. His use of image of a high price being “squeezed out” of buyers, is a vividly negative one, and an instance of Smith’s relatively rare use of figurative language in The Wealth of Nations.

But it wasn’t just the monopoly that bothered other artists. As Wired Magazine noted, “Kapoor hadn’t made his own black. He’d bought it. And then he locked it down.” Something about what Kapoor had done sat uneasily with instincts about creativity, intellectual property, and art. There is a long history of artists creating, and closely guarding, the formulae for their own pigments. If Kapoor had created Vantablack and declined to share it, I suspect that other artists would have been mildly annoyed, but shrugged and acknowledged that his creation of Vantablack was part of his artistic output and that he should have control over that output. But because Kapoor hadn’t created Vantablack, something felt shoddy about the whole process. It wasn’t exactly the artistic equivalent of hiring someone to take your SATs for you….but it wasn’t exactly not that either. 

We are prepared to accept an International Klein Blue, and a Tiffany Blue because their creators were the ones who have the monopoly on their use. As Smith says above they “may with good management, enjoy the advantage of his discovery as long as he lives, and even leave it as a legacy to his posterity.” It’s a monopoly, but it’s one we seem to be generally comfortable with, when it comes to art. 

But artists were not comfortable with Kapoor.

The young artist Stuart Semple responded by creating a “pinkest pink” as a puckish reply to Kapoor’s protected “blackest black.” Semple offered it for sale to the public--with the exception of Kapoor.

That’s extremely funny, but it’s not the really Smithian part of the story.

The next thing Semple did, with the assistance of other artists who were equally put out by Kapoor’s monopoly, was to create an alternative to Vantablack.  It’s exactly what Smith says will happen when a “the means of producing a particular color with materials which cost only half the price of those commonly made use of.” Semple’s pigment is more usable than Vantablack, non-toxic, sweetly scented, and cheaper to produce. His Black 2.0 performs nearly as well as a “void” as does Vantablack. And anyone can buy it or any of Semple’s many other pigments and art supplies. 

Except Anish Kapoor.

The story of Vantablack, the Pinkest Pink, and Black 2.0 highlights the emotional reaction we have to particular kinds of economic stories. In strict economic terms there is no real difference between Kapoor’s purchase and exclusive use of Vantablack and Louis Tiffany’s creation and exclusive use of Tiffany Blue. But somehow, it is Kapoor’s action that rankles. Creating and protecting a unique resource seems fine. Buying one and protecting it seems vulgar. 

I’m not sure we really know why we feel this way. Adam Smith might say it has something to do with the unsocial passions or with our distaste for middlemen who seem to make money from others’ work without doing “real work” of their own. Would we react the same way to an inventor creating some other kind of good and then selling the process? Is it art that makes the difference?

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