When Is It Better To Rent Software Than To Buy It?

Purchasing Software

In the beginning, purchasing software on a floppy, disc or dongle was the only option. The software was very expensive, but you owned it. You may have either purchased a computer or built one yourself, tailored to the specifications of that software, including the purchase of a specific operating system. The computer and software also worked great with your camera until you decided to upgrade that camera; now the software may not recognize the codec for the camera, but fortunately for you, the software manufacturer has posted updates online. Additionally, owning a physical copy of the software provided the benefit of being able to re-install the software when you made repairs or upgrades to your computer. Until recently, this was the model of licensing software that we all were familiar with.

Depending on the software title, your only choice may be a subscription service.

With the dawn of the digital download, software costs were supposed to decrease, but in most cases, the only real noticeable difference was the immediacy of obtaining the software. This was great if you needed a new piece of software to complete a project ASAP, but if you had any issues with your laptop or PC and needed to reload that software, you were on the phone with a help desk for hours.

Somehow, digital downloads evolved into a subscription-based model. Adobe was a pioneer in the model and has now completely eliminated outright purchases of most of their software titles. While people are scooping up existing copies of older Adobe titles, Adobe has proclaimed that they will only provide updates now for their cloud-based subscription software. If updates and customer support aren't important to you, you may want to join the ranks of those searching for Adobe CS6 on disc. Depending on the software title, your only choice may be a subscription service; however, if you want to outright purchase, this may be a great time to try a new, alternative title. 

Subscription Service

While software manufacturers have tried to extoll the virtues of cloud-based subscription services, many believe the real reason for the shift is piracy, including using disc based single user software on multiple machines.

Adobe Creative Cloud and Media Composer licensing options
Adobe Creative Cloud and Media Composer licensing options
With that said, for many a subscription fee is more affordable than a large outright purchase — particularly on high end software such as the Adobe Creative Collection, Avid Media Composer or Autodesk Entertainment Creation Suite. Updates are automatic, which does save a considerable amount of time and troubleshooting particularly when your software no longer works because of a new codec.

Many of the subscription services require a minimum 12 month subscription, but if you only need the software for a specific project, a one year subscription may still be cheaper than an outright purchase. Some companies such as Adobe offer a higher priced monthly fee for a subscription without any monthly minimum contracts. The most important thing you should be asking yourself when considering a limited-time subscription is, “Will there be a need to be able to alter this project in the future?”

In the past, some editors would use their older systems for archival purposes. Typically, they would buy software, build a system to run it on and then in a few years, replace the whole computer and get new software because it was easier than trying to upgrade the old computer. The old computer and software still worked so they’d keep it around as a backup system or to do simple tasks on it to free up their newer systems. They could also access or update project files on that older system. You can’t do that with subscription-based software; older computers will be stripped of their software when the new ones arrive. 

There are some potential downsides to subscription-based services that many have not experienced yet, such as what happens when the software company decides you need to upgrade to newer minimum hardware specs or a new operating system, and you’re not ready to make that purchase? Will you be able to access and alter older projects once the software has upgraded, particularly if you’ve had to upgrade your OS or computer hardware? There are many unanswered questions regarding subscription-based software that will only be clarified with time.

Subscription services are part of a new landscape that utilizes the cloud to host software and encourages users to also save content there. As we saw recently with the Sony hack, online files can be compromised. How sensitive are your client's files and projects? How vulnerable is your computer online? How effective is your virus protection and your firewall? Even though you may only have to go online once a month to update your software, for many editors having a computer online is a foreign and scary concept.

Know Before you Buy

Most software offers anywhere from a seven-day to a 30-day free trial. Some watermark your project or offer a limited tool set while others let you experience the complete package for free. If you can't decide during a free trial period if a piece of software meets your needs, a subscription might be a good option for you. Pay attention to the minimum subscription time to ensure that the trial is really cost effective. 

Don’t Forget the Free Software

If the dilemma of whether to purchase or rent is confusing, there is an abundance of free software to cover everything from screenwriting to editing to visual effects and color correction. Now if there was only a free camera! Celtx, Lightworks and Blackmagic Design’s Fusion 7 and DaVinci Resolve Lite are great options if you can’t afford a subscription, although many award winning editors and VFX artist also love these titles — and they can afford to pay more! 

Do the Math

In the end, it may come down to mathematics and economics.

Diagram showing Perpetual License vs Subscription prices and options.
You should always evaluate the outright purchase price for the software as opposed to renting it. How many months of renting would equal or exceed the purchase price?

If you’re a small production company that selects software to support the cameras you shoot with and purchases a computer to run that software, you may want to look at how often you upgrade your cameras to decide if a subscription or outright purchase is more cost effective for you. What’s important to note is that an outright purchase is a better option because, as long as you’re using the same cameras, your editing software should provide everything you need without updates, allowing you to use the same computer and editing software for as long as you use those cameras. However, if you want the latest bells and whistles from a VFX program that’s in the same software suite, you’re looking at frequent upgrades, in which case renting may be a better option.

For high-end software, if working on that platform is essential to you getting a job, a subscription may be the answer for you. Finally, it’s important to note that a few software manufacturers are providing a monthly installment plan toward a purchase; for example after 12 months of a fixed payment, you own the software outright. This truly seems to be the best of both worlds and perhaps more manufacturers will consider this option. 

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Suite for a Sweet Price

Bundling software at a value is not a new concept — Microsoft Office is a great example. Companies tend to bundle software that complement each other; case in point is Adobe Creative Collection. At first glance you might think, “Well, I only really need Premiere and maybe After Effects.” Purchasing these two subscriptions separately would cost almost the price of the full suite. For a little bit more, you can license some other wonderful software included in the suite that can become a handy tool for your production box such as Audition for more efficient audio cleanup or Dreamweaver to create your website or Photoshop to create an advertisement. If you buy a bundle, be sure to check out the extra software titles included; there's probably an unknown gem that can really increase your productivity or creative abilities.

W. H. Bourne is an award-winning director; her most recent film played at more than 40 film festivals, including international screenings.

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