Calm down, Adobe tells fans – Photoshop’s new small print isn’t as controversial as it looks

Adobe has been under fire lately, having been called out for its “shocking dismissal of photography” by the American Society of Media Photographers for some tone-deaf Photoshop ads it ran a few weeks ago. And now the software giant has been forced to defend itself again, after a social media outcry over some new Photoshop terms and conditions that started rolling out this week.

Over the past few days, a number of high-profile Photoshop users have expressed their dismay on X (formerly Twitter) about a new 'Updated Terms of Use' pop-up that they've been forced to accept. The new small print contains some seemingly alarming lines, including one that states “we may access your content through both automated and manual methods, such as for content review”.

Adobe has now defended the new conditions in a new blog post. In short, Adobe claims that the slightly ambiguous legalese in its new small print has created an unnecessary furore, and that nothing has fundamentally changed. The two key takeaways are that Adobe says it “does not train Firefly Gen AI models on customer content” and that it will “never assume ownership of a customer's work”.

On the latter point, Adobe explains that apps like Photoshop need to access our cloud-based content in order to “perform the functions they are designed and used for”, like opening and editing files. The new terms and conditions also only impact cloud-based files, with the small print stating that “we [Adobe] don’t analyze content processed or stored locally on your device”.

Adobe does also admit that its new small print could have been explained better, and also stated that “we will be clarifying the Terms of Use acceptance customers see when opening applications”. But while the statement should help to allay some fears, other concerns will likely remain.

One of the main points raised on social media was concern about what Adobe's content review processes mean for work that's under NDA (Non-Disclosure Agreement). Adobe says in its statement that for work stored in the cloud, Adobe “may use technologies and other processes, including escalation for manual (human) review, to screen for certain types of illegal content”.

That may not completely settle the privacy concerns of some Adobe users, then, although those issues are arguably applicable to using cloud storage in general, rather than Adobe specifically.

A crisis of trust?

An image of a waterfall being expanded using Adobe's Generative Fill tool

(Image credit: Adobe)

This Adobe incident is another example of how the aggressive expansion of cloud-based services and AI tools is contributing to a crisis of trust between tech giants and software users – in some cases, understandably so.

On one hand, the convenience of cloud storage has been a massive boon for creatives – particularly for those with remote teams spread across the world – and AI tools like Generative Fill in Photoshop can also be big time-savers. 

But they can also come at a cost, and it remains the case that the only way to ensure true privacy is store your work locally rather than in the cloud. For many Photoshop users, that won't be an issue, but the furore will still no doubt see some looking for the best Photoshop alternatives that don't have such a big cloud component.

As for AI tools, Adobe remains the self-appointed torch-bearer for 'ethical' AI that isn't trained on copyrighted works, though it's landed in some controversies. For example, last month the estate of legendary photography Ansel Adams accused Adobe on Threads of selling AI-created imitations of his work.

In fairness to Adobe, it removed the work and stated that it “goes against our Generative AI content policy”. But it again shows the delicate balancing act that the likes of Adobe are now in between rolling out powerful new AI-powered tools and retaining the trust of both users and creatives.

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Photoshop’s new AI-powered tricks will fix your biggest mistakes

Adobe Photoshop has been the gold standard in photo editing for over three decades, so it was only a matter of time until it embraced the tricks seen in the best AI art generators – and it's now done just that in the form of a new tool called Generative Fill.

The new tool, which lets you extend images or add objects to them using text prompts, certainly isn't the first AI-powered feature we've seen in Photoshop. Generative Fill is also a user-friendly development of existing Adobe tools, like Content Aware Fill, but it's also one of the most significant new Photoshop features we’ve seen for years.

That’s because it leans on the power of Adobe Firefly, the company’s new generative AI engine, to help you fix big compositional mistakes or completely reinvent an image’s contents. In Adobe’s demos, images in portrait orientation are instantly turned into ones in landscape – with Photoshop simply inventing the sides of the photo based on the original image.

While some of those examples are quite subtle, others have a very obvious art aesthetic. For example, a photo of a corgi is turned into one with very obviously fake bubbles and a van in the background. 

Adobe clearly sees Generative Fill as a tool for both beginners and pros, but the new text-to-image prompt box is certainly a useful touch for those who don’t know Photoshop’s existing tools. You can use this to add small details to an image or completely change its background – in another demo, a deer is moved from its forest background to a city thanks to the prompt ‘wet alley at night’.

Of course, none of this will be new to fans of Midjourney or Dall-E, which have helped spark this year’s boom in text-to-image generation. 

But Adobe is keen to stress that AI tools like Generative Fill model have only been trained on Adobe Stock images, openly-licensed content, and public domain content where the copyright has expired. This means they can be used for commercial use without the threat of class-action lawsuits from artists who claim some AI models have stolen their work.

While Generative Fill is only rolling out to the full Photoshop app in the “second half of 2023”, there are a couple of ways you can try it out now. First, it’s available in Photoshop’s desktop beta app, which you can get by going to the Creative Cloud desktop app, choosing Beta apps in the left sidebar, then installing it from there.

The feature is also available as a module within the web-only Adobe Firefly, which was also recently added to Google Bard. To use Firefly in Bard, you can simply write your image request (for example, 'make an image of a unicorn and a cake at a kid's party') and it'll do the rest. What a time to be alive. 

Analysis: Photoshop battles its new AI rivals

A corgi dog running through a puddle below bubbles

Some of the effects created by the Firefly-powered Generative Fill are more clearly AI-generated. (Image credit: Adobe)

Like Google, Adobe is a giant incumbent that's under attack from AI upstarts like OpenAI and Midjourney. While Firefly and Photoshop's Generative Fill aren't doing things we haven't seen before, they are doing them in a measured way that sidesteps any copyright issues and helps maintains its reputation.

Photoshop's embrace of generative AI also brings these tools fully into the mainstream. The image editor may not be the dominant force it was before the likes of Canva, Affinity Photo and GIMP arrived to offer more affordable alternatives, but it remains one of the best photo editors around and certainly one of the most widely used.

From Adobe's early demos, it looks like Generative Fill is in its early days and produces mixed results, depending on your tastes. In some images, the effects are subtle and realistic, while in others – particularly images where large parts of entirely AI-generated – the results are clearly AI-generated and may not date very well.

Still, the arrival of Generative AI alongside other new features like the Remove Tool –another development of the Photoshop's existing ability to let you eliminate unwanted objects – is only a good thing for those who aren't familiar with the app's sometimes arcane interface. 

And it's another step towards the AI tools, like DragGAN, that will completely change photography as we know it.        

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