Creatives, Just Say No to Subscriptions

During the 80's there was a massive campaign launched in the United States with the aim to keep kids from becoming addicted to recreational drugs. The mantra plastered on signs and exclaimed by celebrities on television was "Just Say No". Many creative professionals have become dependent on software which is now being offered on a subscription-only basis. The time has come to "Just Say No" to software licenses that will leave us with worse software, more dependency, greater cost, and fewer choices.

The good(ish) ol' days

Until recently, almost all software was sold with a perpetual license. The cost for the license could be significant, but once it was paid, we owned a license to use the software as long as we wanted to, without obligation to upgrade. Software companies would create new features and make improvements in order to entice us to upgrade, but if we didn't see an incentive to upgrade, we could continue to use the current version of the software and access our prior work as long as needed.

This model wasn't perfect. We were at times suspicious that software companies were intentionally seeding their software with bugs or holding back features in order to compel us to upgrade. Companies knew people wouldn't upgrade with every release and levied hefty prices and sometimes-strange upgrade rules accordingly. Though not perfect, this model at least put the burden upon them to provide value before asking for more money. In other words, they had to make money the same way that we do.

Someone else's problem, now yours

It is hard to match the breakneck speed of improvement that happens early in the life of software. Not only are revolutionary ideas implemented early on, but over time customers become comfortable and actually resistant to big changes. Releases start to feel mundane, and profits begin to suffer from reduced upgrade frequency. The field also becomes ripe for competition.

This is perhaps why Autodesk and Adobe went on a buying spree to broaden their portfolios of products, and protect their overall profits. It was also a means to remove many competitors from their markets, which allowed them to keep their prices high. While protecting profits, this approach doesn't address the underlying issue--people don't want to pay the same for something that provides them diminishing incremental value over time. For these software companies to continue to grow, having reduced the competition, they were free to try something that would yield untold profits--subscriptions.

Subscriptions, a bad deal

At a surface level, using software on subscription basis looks like a good idea. You get the software you need without having to come up with a large pile of cash to purchase it. That makes software more available to more people. These are good things, right? It's when you go deeper that you discover that subscriptions, in markets with little competition, are a bad deal.

Worse software

When you know someone will be buying tomorrow's version of your software, because they have to, what incentive is there to put a lot of money into costly improvements? Competition. If there is little existing competition, then what? Pride. Stock prices don't rise on pride, they rise on profits. Ultimately once you remove the incentives to improve something, the quality of improvements will decrease.

More dependency

With a perpetual license if you didn't like the direction an application was going or felt like the quality was decreasing, you could stop upgrading and just continue to use what you've already paid for. With a subscription your payments don't amount to the ownership of anything. If you should need to edit a file at any time, you have to go back to the software vendor and pay them on their terms.

Greater cost

Software companies will try to tell you that you're saving money on the subscription. This would be true if we were upgrading each year. In reality few people ever did, and with the decreasing value of the software, even fewer would in the future. Since software companies choose their selling price, this argument was disingenuous to start with.

Fewer choices

In order to sustain a company by subscriptions, it either needs a very large customer base, or have enough cash to finance operations until it does. This creates what marketers would call a barrier-to-entry for would-be competitors. Without competitors, there are fewer choices and no relief from high prices.

It's time to Just Say No

We shouldn't hate corporations for accumulating wealth--that is what they are designed to do! But when Adobe brings in record profits and yet seems primarily interested in creating services to build further dependency, what are we to do? With Autodesk announcing an end to all proprietary licenses and firing 1150 employees to double down on that strategy, what are we to do? Just say no!

Forget "Industry Standards"

The term "Industry Standard" gets tossed around by market incumbents to scare business managers and academic institutions into buying their product (who ever got fired for using the industry standard?). It is reinforced by job listings that would pretend that one's creative capability is measured by their mastery of a particular application--we all know that is not true. We are the industry and our standards should not further some entrenched commercial enterprise, but instead further the cause of free expression and creation.

Use software with better licenses

Pick software that offers a perpetual license. Even better, use and help contribute to the creation of software that is made available under a free and open-source license, such as Blender, Inkscape, Krita, GIMP, Darktable, Natron, Kdenlive, etc. This blog, and many other resources are available to help you do just that. These tools are not going to get bought out by Adobe or Autodesk when they gain market share, just leaving you in the same boat tomorrow as you are today.

Stop whining about it

Of course moving to a new tool is going to slow you down some period of time. Of course there are going to be features lacking. But there are also new features elsewhere and new opportunities. You are the creator. Seize upon the constraints to foster creativity. Develop new workflows. It won't be any easier next month or next year to make the change, it will be harder. So make the change now, it's worth it.

Yes this article does end

I'm certainly not suggesting you get rid of Netflix. However, subscriptions to software that we depend upon as professionals are different. When their licensing terms leave us with worse software, more dependency, greater cost, and fewer choices, then a change has to happen. So join with us and just say no.

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Creatives, Just Say No to Subscriptions
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