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How Adobe Canceled Itself
June 21, 2024

How Adobe Canceled Itself

Reading Time: 4 minutes

You Might Want to Cancel Your Adobe Subscription After Seeing This, The software company drew the ire of the FTC—and their own employees. They only have themselves to blame., Adobe lawsuit: The FTC sues Adobe for making it hard to cancel subscriptions.

If you tilted your ears in a certain direction on Monday, you could make out a resounding cheer from the creative class across social media platforms and various Discord servers. That’s because the Federal Trade Commission sued software company Adobe and two of its executives for ‘deceiving consumers‘ by all but forcing them ‘into year-long subscriptions through hidden early termination fees and numerous cancellation hurdles.’

‘Adobe has had it coming for years,’ New York journalist Nolan Hicks stated. ‘I don’t know of a single person who is rooting for Adobe on this,’ tweeted video essayist Scott Niswander. One viral meme urged the agency to ‘tear the bitch apart.’ Long-percolating suggestions for alternative design software made the rounds. An Adobe stock surge fueled by a promising earnings report subsequently dented and plateaued; investors may have recalled that when the FTC launched its probe last year, executives revealed in a quarterly disclosure that they may incur ‘significant monetary costs or penalties‘ as a result. When the suit finally landed, Adobe issued a statement claiming that it has a ‘simple cancellation process’ and ‘will refute the FTC’s claims in court.’

The tensions that exploded after the FTC announcement had been building for months. Back in September, Adobe announced price hikes for its subscription services (e.g., annual all-apps costs jumping from $599.88 to $659.88). This was pitched as necessary for covering its expensive integration of artificial intelligence—a move that left many users upset, in light of how often subscription costs had consistently increased over the years.

Earlier this month, frequent users of Adobe’s most iconic programs (Photoshop, InDesign, Illustrator, Acrobat Reader) also noticed that the company made some potentially concerning terms-of-service updates that enshrined the services’ right ‘to use, reproduce, publicly display, distribute, modify, create derivative works based on, publicly perform, and tranMediaDownloader’ user-generated creations uploaded to the Creative Cloud (the virtual suite where all the aforementioned apps are hosted). Adobe also proclaimed that its year-old A.I. offerings could soon incorporate apps from OpenAI and Runway. Coupled with Bloomberg reporting that Adobe’s supposedly copyright-respecting and ‘creator-friendly‘ Firefly A.I. tool had trained in part on synthetic output from other A.I. tools like Midjourney, it was natural for artists and subscribers to wonder whether Adobe was pilfering their portfolios to train more A.I., as my colleague Scott Nover noted.

The company quickly responded to the backlash by writing that it would clarify its new terms by mid-June, making a point of mentioning that ‘we don’t train generative AI on customer content.’ Yet even Adobe’s own employees expressed their chagrin with the terms updates and attempted PR cleanup, with one worker pointing out on Slack that there was a  serious image problem: ‘A loud ‘F Adobe’ and ‘Cancel Adobe’ rhetoric is happening within the independent creator community that needs to be addressed.’ These dissenters, whose messages were leaked to Business Insider, also ‘pointed out that Adobe faced similar controversies in the past over allegations of charging early termination fees and deploying ‘dark patterns’ to trick users into signing a 12 month contract.’ (A prescient message, that one, considering that the FTC complaint calls out both practices.)

While these controversies blew up in public, Kyle T. Webster, a former senior designer for Adobe, wrote an essay about why he’d recently stepped down from the company: ‘As Adobe’s business changed, I found myself feeling disconnected, discouraged, and sometimes even dispirited.’ It’s not far-fetched to assume his public stances against generative A.I. may have had something to do with that.

Adobe did at least follow through on its pledge to provide a midmonth terms-of-service update, underscoring on Tuesday that no, it would not train A.I. on user creations, and that the expanded library access is intended to help the corporation ferret out illegal imagery like child sexual abuse material. So far, none of this seems to have quelled any of the aforementioned ‘Cancel Adobe’ sloganeering.

For many of those objectors, their worries about Adobe go way back—to about 12 years ago, when the company shifted its software-business model from sales to subscriptions. Despite the initial complaints, this strategy switch-up earned great and consistent profits for the Photoshop maker, and it kept jacking rates up over time—even as consumers kvetched about the compounding costs on Adobe’s very own community forums. Digital creators shared lists of alternate image-editing apps and put together elaborate guides explaining how one could ditch the Creative Cloud if they wished. But the sheer breadth of Adobe’s offerings—and the frequently noted burdens it imposed to dissuade subscribers from canceling—left many feeling as if they were locked in. That meant only more subscriptions for Adobe, which made for an outsize share of its revenue.

Something may have started to break last year, though, as Adobe joined the A.I. gold rush. The software juggernaut, perhaps recognizing its artsy customer base, said early in 2023 that it would oversee an ‘ethical’ A.I. regime, one that compensated designers who contributed works to its non-copyright Adobe Stock image database, and would only train its Firefly program on Stock entries and commercially licensed works. Even so, creators who had contributed images to Stock in the pre-A.I. era were not happy that their works were suddenly up for A.I.-training grabs. Others found that Stock included A.I.-generated imagery in its corpus, despite Adobe’s claims to the contrary.

The real kicker? None of these users could get any help or lodge any proper complaints with the company thanks to roadblocks stemming from Adobe’s A.I.-incorporating customer service process. (From the FTC complaint: ‘In numerous instances, subscribers who have requested to cancel through Adobe’s customer service believe they have successfully cancelled but continue to be charged.’)

So it’s not surprising that many Adobe customers finally turned to the federal government. In its filing, the FTC notes that subscribers have submitted ‘frequent complaints’ to the Better Business Bureau over Adobe’s pricey and confusing subscription services, as well as the burdensome process required to cancel or modify them. Further, the agency states that higher-ups knew about these grievances and did not act appropriately to help Adobe’s customers.

Adobe isn’t likely to back away from A.I., especially as it offers options within Acrobat for you to ‘chat‘ with your PDFs, and as persistent subscriptions continue to bring in some nice pocket change. But with the revelations that its lifeblood subscription model may be the result of consumer entrapment instead of genuine engagement, it may not have been as transparent (or truthful) in its terms of service as previously claimed, and tens of thousands of netizens cheering a government crackdown—well, suffice it to say the corporation may not escape the ‘F Adobe’ sentiments anytime soon.


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