How Adobe Drives Infringement Of Its Products Through Incompatibility

from the you're-not-helping dept

Adobe is one of the key backers of the BSA, which is famous for its, at times, highly questionable tactics in "raiding" companies and accusing them of having infringing software and forcing them to pay up. And, yet, at the same time, its own actions may be one of the biggest causes of infringement of its software. Part of it is pricing. Adobe's products have become something of a standard in the design world, and because of that, there's something of a monopoly tax (though, some new entrants really are trying to break that). But, as Joe Karaganis pointed out a few weeks ago (yes, this one's old, but I'm catching up), Adobe seems to go to ridiculous lengths to make things worse for paying customers by not making some of its products backwards compatible. That's fine if only you are using the product. But when -- as is almost always the case in design -- there are collaborative efforts where files need to be shared, it's deathly. And Adobe seems to have perfected death by incompatibility:
Like a lot of publishing projects, the production of MPEE was a small scale collaboration involving free lance help for book layout, maps, and proofing. Once the text is laid out in publishing software (for us, InDesign), all of these stages are most easily done in InDesign. Here, we learned a painful lesson. Adobe has released 3 versions of InDesign in 4 years. All of them break compatibility with the previous versions. So when our layout designer (CS3) handed the doc off to our map illustrator (CS4), the document saved up and was no longer readable by the former. We bought CS5 in our Columbia U office (via a not-ridiculously-priced academic license at $300), but the original layout had used Mac fonts, which the PC rendered differently. Ultimately, everyone had to upgrade to the trial version of CS5, and then the clock was ticking and we had 1 month to finish.
Adobe's response to all of this is, effectively, "well, buy a copy of all versions." Easier said than done, of course, and that's where it helps drive unauthorized infringement. Many people will buy one version, but feel that it's somewhat extortionate to force people to buy the latest version just to open files.

Now, some may point out that this is Adobe's way of doing implicit price discrimination. If it's not really enforcing copyright on most players, then those who are able to afford the upgrades do, and those who can't, don't (but likely get unauthorized versions). And that would work if there wasn't such a huge risk in doing so. When the BSA actively urges employees to "rat out" their employers, and seems, at times, to relish going after small businesses, this creates serious chilling effects.

Of course, it also seems like it should be an opportunity for others in the market. To date, it's definitely been difficult for others to get into the market -- and part of that is the proprietary nature of the way Adobe saves files. Opening that up would definitely drive significantly more competition (which is why Adobe doesn't want to do it). So how do people break that cycle? When the "lock-in" from the user base is pretty strong, how is it possible to get people to move to solutions that aren't so anti-consumer? Alternatively, how could Adobe itself adjust, so that it's more reasonable?

I would argue that even if Adobe's lock-in position is dominant today, it won't always be, and pissing off consumers with ridiculous stunts like this won't help. If Adobe's smart, it'll head off competitors not by continuing this sort of anti-consumer behavior, but by focusing on continuing to add more value to the products, while making them more consumer friendly. Many people are happy to buy Adobe products. But forcing them to buy multiple versions makes them a lot less happy. That may be good for the bottom line in the short run, but it's really risky in the long run.

Filed Under: copyright, incompatibility, infringement, piracy
Companies: adobe


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  1. identicon
    Scootah, 5 May 2011 @ 7:57pm

    Even in major enterprise, it's almost impossible to comply with Adobe's licensing conditions. In a previous business with 800 users, connecting to a citrix farm - we had 20 users through the business who needed adobe professional.

    With most applications, we would simply install the product on the citrix farm and restrict user access to the executable through security groups, or install the app and then publish it through citrix to be only available to members of a security group that would be restricted to the number of purchased licenses.

    Neither of these solutions are suitable for Adobe. To install this product in a citrix farm - you either need to Silo all users of this product to a single server instance (regardless of their geographic location, making their entire user experience awful because they want to make PDF's and don't want to use the free print to pdf from word option) or purchase an additional product at increased cost and with extensive management overhead.

    Had we failed to comply with these idiotic requirements, and been audited by Adobe - we would have been up for $320k, because we had 20 users who wanted to use a product, even though we had already paid $8k to license those users, and they were the only users who could actually use the application.

    In another buisness with a thousand users, where we wanted to mass update Adobe freeware products within the enterprise in response to major security exploits, and lock down certain behaviours to prevent new security issues as we moved forward with correcting the SOE, we found that we couldn't actually do it without obtaining a distribution license - otherwise we would be in breach of the terms of installation by altering the behaviour of the application install packages or accepting the terms and conditions. All the tools for doing what we wanted to do were published without any kind of warning that we would be breaching the license, in Adobe KB articles or blogs. We had to choose between risking Adobe's notorious audit nightmare or leaving critical security vulnerabilities in place through the enterprise.

    As an admin, it has become immensely in my interests to fight tooth and nail against the deployment of any Adobe product. If a developer wants Cold Fusion? It's a nightmare unless I can talk them out of it and into Blue Dragon or something. If we want a PDF reader - almost any of the third party alternatives will be vastly more practical to maintain in the SOE or managed desktop environments. If people want to produce PDF's? It's easier to teach them to use a third party product and a print to pdf driver than to try and manage the products in an enterprise environment. I hate Apple's anti flash stance on iOS devices, but it's a nightmare to allow it in my business environment. Air is a ludicrous hassle to maintain. The creative suite products (Photoshop, dreamweaver, etc) are all a HUGE pain in the ass to support on anything except single user dedicated fat clients.

    Just auditing the internal environment to minimize harm in the event of an Adobe audit requires a custom auditing solution or SCCM or something - and for several of my clients, those solutions are tremendously expensive, and have insufficient business benefit to justify them - except for the looming threat of Adobe BS.

    No matter how good their products might be, it's almost certainly cheaper for an enterprise scale business to just not use any of them.

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