Why Rental Only Software (The Subscription Model) Is A Bad Thing
By Neil Blevins
Created On: Feb 28th 2020
Updated On: Mar 1st 2020

This opinion piece is about a recent trend in software that I think is a terrible deal for the art community and software customer. The trend is Software as a Service, also known as the subscription model, or rental only software. The idea is pretty simple, rather than paying a single fee, and then getting the software to use anytime you want for as long as you want, you pay a monthly / yearly fee, and that gives you access to the software in question until you stop paying. Large software vendors of art related software such as Autodesk, Adobe, and Substance have all gone down this route. I feel this sort of scheme gives the software company too much control over the software, and takes away too much choice from the consumer. And while it may be to late to really change this sort of practice from becoming the new norm in the industry, I feel I need to at least discuss why this trend is a terrible idea.

First off, just to be clear, I am not against Rental Software as a choice. Giving the OPTION for the consumer to rent the software is great, I wouldn't use that licensing model myself, but I know many for whom that makes good business sense. What I am against is Rental ONLY, so subscription becoming the only option to use the software.

The problems with Rental Only fall into 5 categories:

1) You can't open old files

In the old system, you can open any old files you have without any issues. In the subscription only model, if you don't pay for the software, you can't use it anymore, and so you can't open old files. Here's a personal example. I made a book, and the layout was done using Adobe InDesign. I had to do a few final tweaks to the book, so I bought a 1 month subscription from Adobe. I made my changes, then submitted the book to the printing company. My license lapsed after the month. No problem, right? Well, 2 months later, the printing company pointed out a typo in the book. So now I have to pay $30 for another month of the software so I can do a 1 minute fix. Ok, done, I hand the software back to the printing company. Again, my software license lapses. Then the print company comes back and says they need a slightly different format exported from InDesign. So again, now I have to pay another $30 to do an export. Sure enough, over the next few years, I need to access the file several more times, each time doing a 1-2 minute fix, each time costing me $30.

2) The subscription price can be increased with no recourse

If you buy the software, and then the software company chooses to radically increase the price of either the software or it's updates, you can choose to not pay, and keep the software you have. In a subscription only model, you have no choice but to go with any price increases they give, because not paying will mean you can no longer use the software.

3) Lack of incentive to innovate

In the old system of buying your software, you upgraded to the latest version of the software when they added a feature that you wanted. This forced the software company to add new features in order to entice you to upgrade to the latest version. In a subscription only model, you will pay for the software no matter what, because you want / need to keep using the features that already exist. So there's no incentive, especially in monopolies or near monopolies, to add innovative new features to get your money.

While this is extremely subjective of course, since different users use different features, here's a personal example. Adobe Photoshop CS6, the last purchasable copy of photoshop, came out in May 2012. Now here we are 8 years later, and in that time, the subscription only version of Photoshop has added very few new features. It has a floating color picker now. It has a way to have multiple brush files open at the same time. It changed a few shortcut keys. Otherwise, very little innovation, certainly not at the pace pre 2012. Or back in the day, Autodesk's 3dsmax would add new features like a new physics engine, hair, cloth, a schematic material editor. The last copy of 3dsmax 2020, the biggest new feature was a slightly improved chamfer modifier. Now maybe you really needed that new chamfer modifier, and so to you it feels like development is going just fine. And that's great. But compared to other larger modeling related features, like mudbox style sculpting, Auto Retopologizing Tools, Meshfusion, a new scatter modifier, or something akin to Zsphere Armatures, Chamfer improvements just doesn't seem like a huge step forward.

4) Your software can be EOL'd

Imagine your work relies on a piece of software. But the software isn't popular, and so the software company discontinues the software (end of lifed, or EOL'd), or god forbid, the software company goes under and closes its doors. That's sad, and its likely you will need to move on to other software eventually, but if you're able to buy your software outright, you can keep the software for at least a few years and finish your current work before moving on. If you have subscription only, the software company can turn off your license in seconds, now you can't open you old files, can't finish your current jobs. You are 100% at the mercy of the subscription company, who may or may not give you an appropriate grace period.

5) The software company can kill your software for legal / political reasons

This is sort of an expansion of point 4. This can best be described in 3 real life stories.

The first story isn't software, but films instead. Software isn't the only thing going subscription only. Many of us don't have DVDs anymore, we instead have subscription services like Netflix, or amazon prime, or HBO. Well, lets say I want to see a specific film. I go to netflix, but the film isn't there. But why? Well, turns out netflix is in a contract dispute with the film studio that distributes that film I want to see, and until netflix pays them more money, they have removed all their content from the service. Now you don't get to watch your film. But you can always buy the DVD, right? For now. But as fewer and fewer of us by DVDs, the DVD market gets smaller, and eventually many studios decide not to release their films on DVD anymore. So now that film you've always loved, or can't wait to see, it's gone. It's no longer in your power to choose to buy the DVD, its up to the streaming services to have it, and avoid contract disputes so they can keep it. That's why I still haven't canceled my netflix DVD service, so I can watch ANY film I want, not just the ones Netflix has decided to offer, or is legally able to offer on their streaming service.

Now that I've set the stage, let's get back to software. In August 2019, US president Donald Trump decides to level sanctions against Venezuela. As part of the sanctions, Adobe had to shut off all licenses of Photoshop to anymore in Venezuela. Now imagine you're a Venezuelan artist. You have done nothing wrong. You government's actions are not under your control. But all of a sudden, you can no longer make a living because your software can just be shut off by the software company, like the water company shutting off your water. If you could buy the software outright, you wouldn't have this issue. Yes, maybe sanctions would stop you from upgrading the software, but you could still continue to work with the software you already own and need to do your job.

Story number 3, again Adobe, in 2019, was in a fight with Dolby over a patent. They then discontinued several older versions of their software from being available on subscription, because keeping them running would violate the Dolby patent. Now imagine you're a user trying to finish a project with that older software. If you could buy the software, no problem. But since its subscription only, you have no choice but to abandon the older software, not because you've done anything, but because of a patent fight between Adobe and Dolby. Remember back in 2016 3dsmax's main renderer was mentalray? Until Mental Images decided not to renew its deal with Autodesk, forcing Autodesk to remove mentalray from its new software and replace it with the Arnold Renderer. While sad, in the old system you could at least continue to use mentalray as long as you used the old version of 3dsmax. But imagine 3dsmax of the time being subscription only. Autodesk could remove mentalray from ALL their versions of 3dsmax, not just the latest version, so one day you start up 3dsmax and mentalray is just gone.

In Conclusion

A film came out in 2010 called "Repo Men" (not to be confused with 1984's "Repo Man" starring Emilio Estevez). In "Repo Men", if your heart was damaged, you could replace it was an artificial heart. But you can't buy the heart upright, you can only rent it. So if you all of a sudden lose your job, or can't continue to pay the monthly fee for whatever reason, the Repo Men came visiting to take the heart back, killing the customer. This is of course an absurdely extreme example, but it makes a good point. The large corporations are taking more and more control over our lives. As a society, where do we draw the line? How much control is too much control? Do we want a world where no one is allowed to own anything anymore?

Again, I suspect even if we all bound together and fought, it may be too late to stop this trend. The big monopolistic software companies have done the math, and even though it may piss off some of their customers, enough people will go rental only that they can make more money than continuing to sell software outright, especially now that they don't have to pay for a large group of software engineers to innovate anymore. And eventually old people like me will die off, leaving only a new generation who has never known a world where you could buy your software, so even though the consumer has less choice, they've never had choice and so are less likely to miss it. Like someone who's grown up in a prison and so doesn't fight for freedom because they don't know what freedom is (I know, too melodramatic, but I'm trying to paint a picture here with words).

But I have chosen to not be a part of this system, and no longer use any rental only software. And while it may not lead to anything, I encourage you to join me in protest, and give out hard earned money to the software companies who actually want to give their customers the choice.


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