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You can rent it but you can't have it
Is ownership of the products we currently buy set to become a thing of the past? ponders Slarek | 18 June 2013

A few weeks ago, Adobe – a company with whom anyone who works in graphics or video production will be intimately familiar – announced that they were to cease selling any of their products, which from now on will only be available to those who subscribe to what they like to call The Creative Cloud. This, as they say, is a big fucking deal. What it means is that instead of buying their software as you have in the past, you now have to pay a monthly subscription that will grant you access to it, but only as long as you keep coughing up the cash. The decision has understandably caused uproar, as while professional graphics and video houses may be used to having to regularly pay out for the latest releases to ensure compatibility with their clients (InDesign CS6 files cannot be opened in InDesign CS5, for example) and to get access to the latest cool features in Photoshop and After Effects, the lone user who only updates to a new version when there's a seriously compelling reason to do so will likely find themselves seriously out of pocket.

There's a strong suspicion that Adobe have chosen to do this now because of the near stranglehold they have on the market, or at least key portions of it. Right at the moment there's little out there to seriously rival Photoshop for photo manipulation and the creation of bitmap graphics, and despite the impressive range of features and capabilities of Apple's seriously underrated Motion software (which for just £30 you can install on multiple machines), as the new kid on the block it doesn't come close to dethroning After Effects as the king of post-production video manipulation. By giving users no option – sign up or indefinitely stay on the version of the software you currently own – they know damned well they've got a sizeable portion of their user base by the short and curlies.

There's been a lot of on-line debate about whether the subscription model works out cheaper over the course of a two or three year period than the current box purchase, but this tends to assume you're a Master Suite user (a collection that includes all of the current Adobe software and that would previously have cost you more than your computer) and that you always buy new at the full retail price. Previously you could buy only the programs you wanted or a smaller and cheaper collection targeted at video production or web design. Now you've got two options – get all the programs or just one of them, and the single program option is pricey enough to ensure that if you previously only bought two or three of the programs then you'll be better off getting the complete collection now.

Wealthier users argue – correctly, as it happens – that if you are were previously a Master Suite user and upgraded every time a new version appeared then you'll be better off with the Creative Cloud subscription. And so you bloody should be. After all, Adobe will save a small fortune by switching to the subscription model, which will eliminate the requirement for DVD mastering, duplication and packaging and the physical distribution of the product. And when a product is sold through a third party vendor, they also takes a cut of every unit sold – now every penny of each sale goes straight into Adobe's coffers.

But the thing that bugs me most is that no matter how much you pay, you will never, ever get own the software you have effectively bought. Even if you cough up a few thousand quid over the course of a several years for the licence to use all these programs, if you suddenly find yourself out of work or otherwise financially squeezed (and it can happen to any of us – my entire workplace has been on a three year long wage freeze that looks set to continue for a good few years more and is being forcibly downsized by government spending cuts), you'll still need to find that £47 monthly fee if you want to continue to use the software. This is all very well for those with a sizeable disposable income, but for the rest of us there have always been other ways to offset the considerable cost of such software, including only upgrading every third or fourth version (I'd never have upgraded from Dreamweaver CS3 if it didn't crash every five minutes on my new MacBook Pro) or buying second-hand, options that are effectively nullified by this move.

And therein lies the rub. By switching to the subscription model, Adobe can effectively kill the second-hand market for their products. No longer will you be able to pick up a second-hand copy of the previous edition of Photoshop on eBay or sell your current one to help fund an upgrade to the new version. From now on it's full price or nothing, and given that you can only buy it from one place (what we used to call a monopoly), shopping around for a better price or a one-time special offer is no longer an option. And what if a couple of years down the line Abode decide to seriously jack up the subscription fee?

More worrying, perhaps, is that this is not an isolated case and is starting to look like the shape of things to come. Microsoft were quick to condemn Adobe's decision, but earlier this year were pushing Office users towards the subscription version of their Office 365 package. They have since relented and kept the retail version available, but remain vocally enthusiastic for the subscription model and have expressed the opinion that within ten years everyone will sign up to it. And just this week they announced the release of the long-awaited iPhone version of Office and that will only be available to 365 subscribers.

It's not restricted to production software. In January it emerged that Sony had filed a patent that could be used to prevent second-hand games from being played on its upcoming and eagerly anticipated PlayStation 4, and early indications have suggested that you'll have to pay an as-yet undisclosed fee to activate second-hand games on Microsoft's upcoming X-Box One. It now looks as if there will be no such restrictions on the PS4 after all, but it's clear this is the direction in which the home entertainment industry is heading, with the use of digital rights management already stapling games, films and music to the machines on which they were first downloaded.

Surprisingly, perhaps, the response to the PlayStation story was far from universally negative, with an unexpected and frankly depressing number of capitalistically minded commentators supporting the idea of blocking the resale of games on the basis that none of that money goes to the corporation that produced them in the first place. Er, yeah, but then nor do the proceeds from any second-hand goods. Are these people so wealthy that they can afford to buy everything new? If they really believe what they say then we can presume they would never compromise their principles by buying anything on eBay and would presumably like to see it shut down. The second-hand market has been part of the world economy for as long as there has been an economy, offering a first step to ownership of a variety of products that those on a lower income could otherwise not afford. I've yet to meet a car owner whose first vehicle was bought new, and speaking personally there are only two pieces of furniture in my entire house that weren't cast-offs or purchased second-hand. These corporations appear to want to shut down or control the second-hand market not because it's losing them money – when you set a price for any product you factor all aspects into it, including the profit margin – but because current technology allows them to make even more. It's driven not by fairness but old-fashioned greed.

This sense that you do not own the objects you buy is very much part of the computer age and really took hold with the success of Apple's iPhone, a device capable of running a huge variety of apps but only those that meet with Apple's approval. And the goalposts can change even after you've bought the product. A key appeal of Sony's PlayStation 3 games console for a number of its early purchasers was the inclusion of a feature called OtherOS, which it allowed you to install alternative operating systems such as Free BSD or Linux. Then on 1st April 2010 (April Fool's Day – how apt) Sony used a system update to strip the device of this feature. The official given reason was "security concerns", but it also had the effect of disabling the very function that many had bought the console for in the first place. Class actions suits were filed against the company, then Sony hit back by suing hacker George Hotz (we like him) and other members of the failoverflow group with a whole string of copyright offences for jailbreaking the PS3, a device they had bought and paid for (and let's not forget how expensive it was when it first appeared) and should thus, by all that if morally right, be able to do what the hell they liked with. Imagine Volkswagen hitting you with a law suit for souping-up the engine of your Golf GTI or repainting the bodywork in non-corporate colours. I know I'm being a tad flippant here, but come on...

There's an inescapable sense that the tentacles of corporate control are extending further into our private lives and taking possession of objects that we once would have owned but are now increasingly being pressured to rent instead. Maybe, just maybe, I'm falling out of sync with current trends, and certainly have acquaintances who seem happy to fork out every month for a beefy mobile phone contract, a plethora of terrible satellite TV channels, a range of film-on-demand services and an uncapped internet connection fast enough to facilitate the streaming of HD movies that still don't come close to Blu-ray quality when viewed on a decent-sized screen. I sometimes have this grim vision of them suddenly dying and their family going to their house to collect their possessions and finding only a TV and a computer and a string of rental and subscriptions payments to be cancelled.

Like many film fans I'm also a collector and still get a thrill from the love and care that goes into some Blu-ray and DVD discs, from Arrow's lovely cult horror releases (which can include a bucketful of on-disc special features and physical extras like booklets, posters and reversible sleeves) to those treasurable Masters of Cinema Steelbox editions, the handsomely packed and featured Criterion discs, and even studio releases like Fox's superb US DVD editions of Se7en and Fight Club. I also like to think that when I pay out for something I have it for life (or at least as long as the damned thing remains usable or playable) and can do what I want with it without coporrate approval. And if I should I suddenly find myself without employment for an extended period (any day now...) or more financially squeezed than I currently am, then I've still got access to a sizeable library of films and can still use my software for design and video work that might help me land another job without having to worry whether I should spend this week's money on food, light and heat, or Adobe, Love Film and Netflix subscriptions.