Adobe’s new terms of service aren’t the problem — it’s the trust

June 7, 2024
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A recent notification from Adobe about a terms of service update caused outrage online once many people — forced to accept the new terms for continued access to its apps and services — interpreted it to mean Adobe was permitting itself free rein to access and use their work to train AI models.  

Specifically, the notification said Adobe had “clarified that we may access your content through both automated and manual methods” within its TOS, directing users to a section that says “techniques such as machine learning” may be used to analyze content to improve services, software, and user experiences. The update went viral after creatives took Adobe’s vague language to mean that it would use their work to train Firefly — the company’s generative AI model — or access sensitive projects that might be under NDA.

Adobe has now published a blog to address those concerns and assure its users that this isn’t the case. “Our commitments to our customers have not changed,” Adobe said in its statement, affirming that the company doesn’t train Firefly on customer content or assume ownership of a customer’s work. “Firefly generative AI models are trained on a dataset of licensed content, such as Adobe Stock, and public domain content where copyright has expired.”

A before and after comparison of the TOS update (which you can see below) shows that very little about the policy has actually changed. The inclusion of “machine learning,” particularly, while vague, isn’t new and has been present in the TOS for years. One explanation for this is that variations of AI technology that pre-date Firefly have long been used in tools like Photoshop’s Content-Aware Fill and Lightroom’s Select Subject. Confusingly, however, the updated language within the TOS has actually been live since February, with Adobe having only recently notified users of the change.

Here’s a comparison that displays (in pink) what was actually changed within Adobe’s TOS back on February 17th.
Image: Adobe

Adobe’s chief product officer, Scott Belsky, acknowledged on X that the wording within the notification is “unclear” and said the company’s legal team was working to address concerns about the vague language within the policy. “Adobe has had something like this in TOS for over a decade,” said Belsky. “But trust and transparency couldn’t be more crucial these days.”

Adobe has developed something of an “image” problem as it’s grown over the years, especially among individual creatives who no longer feel the company has their best interests at heart. It’s been criticized for dropping its one-time purchase model in favor of recurring subscriptions and accused of creating a monopoly over the creative software industry — which concerned regulators enough to effectively force the company to abandon its attempt to acquire Figma last year. While similar software is available from other brands like Affinity, Adobe’s is typically considered the “industry standard” and difficult to avoid using in professional environments.

Notably, Adobe has also developed a mountain of generative AI tools and services since introducing its own Firefly model in March 2023, enthusiastically promoting them as a means for people with limited creative experience to quickly produce content at scale. I imagine that sounds very attractive to businesses, but not so much to creative professionals who are anxious about their job security. It’s easy to see why so many feel betrayed by the company, especially when Adobe seemingly struggles to enforce the generative AI policies it introduced to protect them.

That breakdown of trust brings us here. While this viral drama surrounding Adobe’s TOS “update” may blow over, hoards of creatives are watching the company like a hawk. Adobe will have to find an effective way to address those trust issues if it wants independent creators, who have come to expect the worst from the company, to see it as the friend it claims to be rather than a foe.

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