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Adobe Licensing Quick Guide

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This Quick Guide was updated in July 2014. View the latest version here, or simply subscribe to our free newsletter to receive a free PDF copy instantly.

Like most other software publishers, Adobe licensing is seen as a complex subject. With Adobe’s Volume Licensing Programs, the way to acquire software products has been made easier, and has become more transparent for software users and Adobe itself. Still, the perception for most people is that “it is hard to follow the licensing of Adobe products and the rules around their usage rights”. On top of this perception, new products and versions are introduced rapidly, and many software users only focus on licensing when they are required to do so. Because of this periodic management, many products and licensing changes that might affect a customer’s license ‘estate’ might a risk in terms of software compliance.

The objective of this article is to provide greater insight into the evolution of Adobe products and to help you understand the why and how of Adobe licensing nowadays.

This article is not intended to detail everything concerning Adobe’s software licensing but to have a better understanding of the Adobe products and their rules regarding software licensing.

Ways to acquire Adobe software
Understanding how you can purchase Adobe software will provide you with a better understanding on how Adobe products fit within your organization. This article goes beyond how a product needs to be licensed (license metric) into a better insight on how to best manage your licenses as assets. Adobe products can be acquired via the following licensing options:

Volume Licensing Program: Adobe Volume Licensing (AVL) includes:

  1. Transactional Licensing Program (TLP)
  2. Cumulative Licensing Program (CLP)


  1. Shrink-wrap, via reseller or retail
  2. Click-wrap, download a Electronic Software Distribution (ESD) via Adobe store.

Note: Adobe had other licensing Programs like Forms Licensing Program (FLP) for their Server products and still offers Enterprise Agreements. In this article these licensing forms will not be discussed in detail.

Over the years, Adobe Volume Licensing Programs have been designed to provide enterprises the ability to access special benefits through a volume purchase program. The programs allow a low entry to acquire licenses for all customers. For example, TLP has no minimum purchase requirement. You can purchase 1 license under TLP. This is a good progression for customers, partners and vendors. In addition, a Volume Licensing Program helps to reduce discussions on proof of ownership. Under a volume program a customer will be given access to their purchase records online, which makes it easy to manage their Adobe entitlements. A shrink-wrap product however is not visible and/or managed in your online entitlements information even though you register your purchase with Adobe. This means keeping the box (shrink-wrap), and/or an invoice will be required to show proof of ownership. However, without a good shrink-wrap administration your investment can be easily confused or diluted, especially in large environments.

There are price differences among the different license types available. Most common license types are:

  • Full license: A major release of a software application that includes new features.
  • Upgrade: New versions of an Adobe product license, sold at a discount to customers who own full licenses for the existing (or previous) version of the product
  • Upgrade Plan (formerly maintenance): Entitles customers to all upgrades of the software they choose to cover that are released during their coverage term, at no additional charge. Is only available under the AVL licensing program

Although many desktop software vendors use a similar license types, it is worth repeating how it exactly works. When you upgrade to a new version of a product, a full license will be used as a ‘base’ license for upgrading to the version you acquired the upgrade for. The combination of the ‘base’ and ‘upgrade’ will give you the right the use that latest version. Note that the full license (‘base’), you used for the upgrade is then consumed!

Below are other less known license types not available to purchase:

  • Post-announce Upgrade: Available to customers who license an Adobe product within a specific period after Adobe announces a new version of that product. This is also called a grace period. Such customers will receive the new version of the product at no additional charge.
  • Update: Includes enhancements and solutions to known issues with a product, but no major new features. Customers are not automatically notified when an update is available, however is provided to customers at no charge.

Worth emphasizing is the grace period. On the announcement of a new product version, the new product is not immediately available. When purchasing an old version during the so-called ‘grace period’ the new version will be provided to you at no cost.

Most Common Products and Licensing

Adobe products can be widely found on desktop and servers. Most of the products are used on different platforms like Windows, Mac, UNIX, Linux, Mobile, etc. Adobe’s products are very diverse and can fall in one of the following categories: consumer photo & video, mobile and devices, print publishing, pro photography, rich internet apps, pro video, tech communication, e-learning and training, web conference, and web publishing. Be aware that these categories can change and this is just an example to illustrate the diversity of the products. Many customers are not aware of this information, and therefore they might be using Adobe products without knowing it.

Another side of Adobe licensing might be less obvious. Adobe sells ‘sexy’ applications that professionals and amateurs like to have and use. Good examples are Photoshop, Creative Suite, Flash, Dreamweaver, which enables someone to create content for personal and company use. Although Acrobat might be considered as less ‘sexy’, Acrobat reader is available at almost 90% of the devices in the world.

It is easy for a user to know which operating system they are using, however with Adobe products it can be slightly different. As mentioned, a lot of people are not aware a product they ‘have’ is an Adobe product. ‘Sexy’ applications drive people to use it, or use parts of the cool functionality. As most of these products can be bought in retail, it is not easy to control how they enter into your organization.

Adobe has the advantage their technologies are well known to the public. However compared with other major software vendors its products address a niche market. It’s licensing is not complex, however not understanding that Adobe’s licensing is important can lead to underestimating the impact of Adobe products in your network. By knowing what Adobe software is, how it enters your company, controlling it, and understanding Adobe’s licensing rules will make your life easier. The following background information should help. Acrobat Reader was initially priced per user and in 1994 with version 2.0 made free of charge. As from that period one could follow a kind of general rule for end user software: ‘de facto standard Adobe technology software (PDF, flash, AIR) is licensed free of charge, however software used for creating content, which can be distributed over the free technology platform, requires a license fee’

Desktop Software
Most known products to the public are Adobe Acrobat, Adobe Flash, and Adobe Photoshop (as point product or as part of the Adobe Creative Suite). Most products are user applications to create content and print or post to the web. Also developer tools like Adobe Dreamweaver, Adobe Flash Professional are desktop products. The general license metric for desktop software is ‘per installation’. Meaning you may install and use one copy of the Software on your Computer. Although this is a quite easy metric and applies for most of the desktop products, there are some exceptions worth remembering.

The nature of Adobe products is that once you use the product functionality you want to make it available for your whole company. PDF generation or collaboration, are typical functions that want you to extend to a wider range of users. Instead of rolling out the desktop software, some choose to deploy the software on a server. Technically this create issues; however, license-wise when you deploy on a server you cannot only count the installation on that server but all users. The total number of users (not the concurrent number of users) able to use the Software on this server(s) may require a license.

Each free and payable product has its End User License Agreement (EULA), which states rules about how you can use and/or count the required licenses. The software license section is one to read. As each product has a EULA, user rights may differ per product. Adobe provides a source of EULA’s at their site. Beware that the site does not show historical EULA’s.

Obsolete products cannot be purchased anymore i.e.: you can only acquire the version that is available at the time of purchase. As from CS2 for Creative Suite products the EULA states that you are allowed to keep and use an older version on your computer. For other and CS products before CS2 you had to remove a previous version when installing an upgrade.

Some licensing complexity around the desktop products is mainly related to Creative Suite products. The Suite products came from Collection Bundles a few years ago where ‘point products’ like Photoshop, InDesign, Illustrator, etc. were bundled in order to address different audiences like Designers, Web developer, Video producers. Some ‘point products’ became part of more Suites, and are sold separate as well. One major challenge around CS product licensing is to understand to what Suite you can migrate to maximize your benefits, especially if you have one or more point products available. A second major challenge is to identify if a point product is installed as part of a Suite or as stand alone product. It would be too extensive to address the CS topics fully in this Quick Guide. If you seek more custom advice please contact me or your Adobe Licensing specialist.

Server Software
Through acquisitions of Jetform/Accelio in 2002 and Macromedia in 2005, Adobe entered the Enterprise Software market and started to offer server products such as Adobe ColdFusion, Adobe Central Pro Output Server, Adobe Forms Designer, and Adobe LiveCycle. With the introduction of Server products, Adobe’s licensing metrics had been extended. In addition to ‘per installation’, other metrics were made available like CPU, User, Server, Document, Form, Set (2 CPU’s). Adobe used to sell these products through their Forms Licensing Program (FLP) program; however recently under the current AVL you can acquire these products under CLP. During the early 2000’s, Adobe used to have also the Site License Program (SLP), with the recent change it has been made easier for customers to just choose a TLP or CLP.

Adobe’s first products were postscript and fonts. Although fonts are still installed on your computer, postscript is a technology in order for people to print in high quality. This technology has been adopted by the industry quite rapidly. As for licensing postscript software, end users normally would not directly have to acquire a license. These technologies have been included in hardware and software. Over the years, Adobe has further developed technologies that are not directly related to a licensing model for software users. In 1993 Adobe introduced the Portable Document Format (PDF), which is still used by many applications. It has been widely adopted and finally published as an open standard in 2008.

Two other technologies are Flash and AIR which emerged after the Macromedia merger. Although all these technologies do not have a direct licensing requirement for software end-users, it is important to understand how they relate to the products that require a license. PDF and Flash are vastly deployed over most of the desktops in the world. Each of them reaches higher than 89% penetration on any device globally. Flash and Acrobat Reader, the products that facilitate showing the content via these technologies, are licensable products, however free of charge. Due to this popularity many people think Adobe products are free, including the products Flash Pro and Acrobat Standard/Professional that help to create the content. Remember to apply the general rule of thumb here.
The misconception many people have that Adobe products are free, is a not strange one, however it is wrong. Ignoring whether your company has installed Adobe products requiring a license is also a dangerous situation with possible side effects. Remember: ‘de facto standard Adobe technology software (PDF, flash, AIR) is licensed free of charge, however software used for creating content, which can be distributed over the free technology platform, requires a license fee’.

Other Adobe Licensing
Products on the Desktop and Server are not the only way of using the functionality of Adobe software. Via Online Services, Adobe is offering a lot of the desktop application functionality to a broader audience, like:, Acrobat Connect Pro,, Flash platform services and Scene7 solutions. The specific terms for each of these services can be found at their site. In general the license models for these services are per subscription. According to the option you subscribe you can use the functionality.

For Desktop products like Acrobat, Creative Suite, and Flash Adobe offers Product Support Plans with Support Contract Terms. The support solutions available focus on your type of companies and the size. Different levels of support are offered to help you take more advantage of the products you acquired. Support Plans are not to be mixed with the Upgrade Plan. Adobe Upgrade Plan ensures that you have the latest version of the product for the period you purchased the Upgrade Plan for. The benefit of this is that it is calculated upfront, and that Adobe automatically will provide the new release to you.

Wrap Up
Providing more information on the background of Adobe products and some rules will hopefully allow you to understand today’s essentials of Adobe licensing. With the simplification offered by the Volume Licensing Program you can get a better insight in your license rights. With some basic knowledge on Adobe technologies and free products you quickly increase your understanding of licensable Adobe products.

You have seen that there can be some misconceptions. With the combination of the very diverse product stack of Adobe they can possibly enter into your organization uncontrolled. In the end Adobe, like other vendors will consider that it is your responsibility to manage. Adobe continues to provide low entry licensing programs and controls like activation in order for you to be in control. Full detailed information around the volume licensing program is very clearly explained on the Adobe website. Additionally Adobe Licensing Centres / resellers will be able to help you find the most optimal way how to purchase. If you have questions, don’t hesitate to get in touch.

Patrick de Veer, of b.lay is an entrepreneur in compliance related administration solutions and knowledge sharing and uses the knowledge of 4 years in Adobe License Compliance Program and 7 years in Oracle License Management Services to make software licensing and managing compliance more transparent.

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About Martin Thompson

Martin is owner and founder of The ITAM Review, an online resource for worldwide ITAM professionals. The ITAM Review is best known for its weekly newsletter of all the latest industry updates, LISA training platform, Excellence Awards and conferences in UK, USA and Australia.

Martin is also the founder of ITAM Forum, a not-for-profit trade body for the ITAM industry created to raise the profile of the profession and bring an organisational certification to market. On a voluntary basis Martin is a contributor to ISO WG21 which develops the ITAM International Standard ISO/IEC 19770.

He is also the author of the book "Practical ITAM - The essential guide for IT Asset Managers", a book that describes how to get started and make a difference in the field of IT Asset Management. In addition, Martin developed the PITAM training course and certification.

Prior to founding the ITAM Review in 2008 Martin worked for Centennial Software (Ivanti), Silicon Graphics, CA Technologies and Computer 2000 (Tech Data).

When not working, Martin likes to Ski, Hike, Motorbike and spend time with his young family.

Connect with Martin on LinkedIn.


  1. Tom says:

    Where can I find Adobe’s Product Use Rights for LC Designer where it states the 500 unique user limit for ‘fillable’

    forms. The limit is not explicitly stated in the EULA of Adobe Pro or LC Desgner.

  2. Hi Tom,
    You might find a response

    by asking this question in the forum or on LinkedIn:

  3. Philip says:

    Hi Tom,

    How about updating this useful site?

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