The FTC is suing software giant Adobe over hidden fees and an “overly complicated” cancellation process

The preeminent software licensing company, Adobe, whose products include industry-standard programs like Photoshop and Illustrator, is being sued by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) for surprising customers with hidden termination fees and an overly complicated cancellation process. The action is a non-criminal suit against Adobe and two of its executives that will result in civil penalties (usually fines or other financial penalties) if they are found guilty. The case will be heard in the Northern District of California. 

Adobe designs and develops software and licenses their services out to consumers. Their products are used by design professionals of all media, and their customer base is made up of over 33 million paid subscribers. In 2012, the company followed the larger trend in digital services and switched to offering a subscriptions-based service instead of a one-time licensing fee. This business model has faced consumer criticism in all markets: in 2023, Amazon faced a similar FTC charge for auto-enrolling customers in their Prime subscription, and stalling their cancellation once registered. The “Click to Cancel” rule proposed by the FTC in 2023 has generally ascribed the notion that an online subscription should be as easy to cancel as it is to join.

The sign-up process for a subscription to any Adobe product is pre-selected to favor their annual paid-monthly plan. While it may seem that users are entering into a month-to-month contract in accordance with their billing cycle, the plan actually requires users to commit, financially, to the entire year. Canceling the subscription has an early termination fee, requiring a 50 percent payment of the total annual cost. According to the FTC, the terms and conditions of the annual plan are intentionally buried in fine print or require opening separate links that aren’t immediately apparent. 

There are dozens of open Reddit threads discussing the issue of surprise cancellation fees, like r/assholedesign (

Adobe has responded by stating that their subscription services are flexible and wide-ranging to accommodate a diversity of artists, designers, and editors who rely on their software to complete tasks as commonplace as saving a PDF and as complex as editing movie footage. As such, the sign-up process is equally as involved as the cancellation process, with fine-tuned verbiage and multiple checkpoints. Adobe claims this is to ensure that customers are getting exactly the product package most useful to their trade and workflow. Adobe plans to refute the lawsuit in court.

The issue for customers is that this long process is often met with stonewalled responses when it goes awry. On the Adobe Community page, where users can ask questions or comment on bugs, over 1,000 posts have been made by users who have encountered issues with billing or payments, and have been ignored or dropped from calls and chats with the customer service response team when trying to resolve their issues.  

Birmingham, Alabama–based designer Ray Patronas, who uses Adobe products for both her graphic design work at After Press and for personal projects, described letting the credit card on her personal account expire to avoid the cancellation fee after being unintentionally enrolled in a vector stock subscription. Despite her efforts, she found that Adobe was still “apparently able to charge a card I cannot use.” Likewise, Lake Markham, a Photoshop user and meme creator in Chicago, downloaded a single stock image from Adobe, but then noticed something odd when reviewing his transactions a few weeks later: “When I looked into it, that image had not only opened me up to a second, separate subscription, but both of my subscriptions were also now fixed annual plans with steep cancellation fees.” 

There are three counts filed against Adobe: The first, that the company and its president and vice president have failed to “clearly and conspicuously disclose material terms of the transaction;” the second, that they did not get express consent before charging consumer cards on file; and the third, that the company does not provide “simple mechanisms” for stopping recurring charges. These charges violate federal laws already in place, namely, the Restore Online Shoppers’ Confidence Act and the FTC Act. 

Alaina Griffin is an architectural writer, designer, and professor based in Chicago.

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