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Adobe Litigation Woes Affect Creative Suite Users

In early May, Adobe announced that, going forward, users would only be able to access the two most recent versions of Creative Cloud desktop applications via download. In mid-May, Adobe sent customized emails to users of older versions of Creative Suite apps, cautioning them that they no longer had a license to use those apps. Apple Insider reported that the Adobe email stated “…customers who continue to use or deploy older, unauthorized versions of Creative Cloud may face potential claims of infringement by third parties. We cannot comment on claims of third-party infringement, as it concerns ongoing litigation.” The announcements dismayed some Adobe software users, and laid bare an uncomfortable truth about software licensing.

The action on the part of Adobe appears to have stemmed from a copyright dispute with Dolby; speculation is that Dolby is the “third party” referenced in Adobe’s communication. The back story is that from 2002, Dolby licensed its technology for encoding and decoding audio to Adobe. Originally, the licensing fee was relatively straightforward to calculate, since it was based on sales figures from sales of software packages. However, when Adobe switched to its Creative Cloud licensing model, the licensing fee calculation became much more difficult. In 2012 and 2013, Adobe and Dolby entered into new licensing agreements which stipulated third party audits of Adobe’s records.

By 2017, the agreement had fallen apart. Dolby had been frustrated in its attempts to exercise its right to the third party audit of Adobe’s records for both the 2012-2014 and 2015-2017 periods. According to a copyright infringement claim filed by Dolby in March of 2018, Adobe refused to “engage in even basic auditing and information sharing practices; practices that Adobe itself had demanded of its own licensees.” Dolby accused Adobe of numerous violations of their licensing agreement, including bundling together multiple products using Dolby technologies but reporting those as only one sale, failing to report or reporting incorrectly Dolby technologies used in Adobe products, and selling products using Dolby technologies without any license at all.

In removing access to older version of Creative Cloud software, Adobe appears to be forcing users to versions of its software that no longer incorporate Dolby technologies. Plagiarism Today ferreted out posts showing that in 2017, Adobe removed the Dolby technology from their software packages. The Creative Cloud software packages currently available via download are only those from 2017 and later. The letters to users of older packages may have been sent to limit Adobe’s liability, should Dolby pursue those users for copyright infringement.

None of Adobe’s woes are their customers’ fault and customers are right to feel let down by the sequence of events. Users have valid reasons to want to hold onto older versions of software, such as a reluctance to employ recent releases before the bugs have been worked out, a preference for an older interface and tools, or the need to work on archived projects which are incompatible or cumbersome with newer versions of software. Adobe’s licensing dispute with Dolby, and the resulting backwash on Adobe users, put a spotlight on the issues associated with subscription licensing models.

However, as the Plagiarism Today article points out, the dispute highlights the fact that software users are just that: users who license software rather than owners to whom the rights to software have been transferred: “ …software ownership really isn’t a thing in 2019, regardless of how you acquire it. Pretty much no matter what, you’re acquiring a license and nothing more. As such, you don’t own the software you use but you assume much of the liability for using it.” For users enamored of an older version of software, that may mean that their preferred software package may suddenly become unavailable.