Adobe CS2 free-for-all? Not quite…and what it really means

Adobe Creative Suite 2 graphic

Bargain hunters went nuts and hammered Adobe download servers over reports that Adobe Creative Suite 2 is supposedly available for a free download. This isn’t the whole story; the facts have been somewhat oversimplified by the “telephone game” nature of passing along information on the Internet. The story is clearer with a little more context.

Adobe Creative Suite requires online activation in order to function. Adobe made a decision to shut down the activation server for Creative Suite 2, which was released in 2005. Shutting down the activation server means that if any of the remaining CS2 users needed to reinstall their software, the software would not be able to activate. Adobe chose to do the right thing for those users: They made it possible for them to keep using the software by providing replacement downloads that won’t look for an activation server.

It’s not meant for everybody

What Adobe wanted to do is provide a simple way for legitimate CS2 users to continue using their software. But whether it was due to lack of clarity on the original Adobe CS2 download page or the immense desire of users to get free software that has a high perceived value, the message being spread around the Internet is that CS2 is free to all. But it isn’t, and Adobe has clarified its language (updated mid-2013) in the Adobe tech note Error: Activation Server Unavailable | CS2, Acrobat 7, Audition 3 (look under How to Install, step 2):

“You can use the serial numbers provided as a part of the download only if you legitimately purchased CS2, CS2 applications, Acrobat 7, or Audition 3.”

In other words, you are not any more (or less) entitled to use CS2 than you ever were. If you didn’t have a license then, you don’t now. But if you still depend on CS2 for mission-critical tasks today, Adobe has removed the activation requirement for the license you have, and that’s a net plus. If you do have a valid CS2 license you can grab the activation-free software from the Adobe CS2 downloads page.

If there’s no technical barrier that stops you from using this software if you don’t have a valid license for it, should you use it anyway? That’s an interesting moral decision. Many of us express frustration, or maybe even feel a little offended, when companies employ copy protection/DRM in a way that seems to assume that we can’t be trusted. But if you decide to act against the terms of a license because there’s no technical barrier to stop you, all you’ve done is prove that the content companies are right.

Would you benefit from running CS2 today?

Whether you’re frantically trying to snag your free download or disappointed that you don’t actually qualify from a legal point of view, it’s worth stepping back for a second to think about the implications of using CS2 today:

  • What’s your hardware? The biggest benefit of being able to run CS2 is for users with older computers. As I write this (in 2013), CS2 is now 8 years old. On the Windows side it isn’t optimized for Windows 7 or later. But the real problem is on the Mac side. CS2 was written for the processor that powered Macs in 2005: The PowerPC. But soon after, Apple migrated all Mac hardware to Intel processors, and the last version of OS X that can run PowerPC software is OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard. But it’s been many years since any new Macs could run 10.6, so new and recent Macs will not run or install CS2 at all. So if you’ve got an up-to-date Mac you can’t use CS2; compatibility with Intel Macs started with CS3. On the other hand, those still running old PowerMac G5 towers will be happy that they can still run CS2.
  • What’s your workflow? Having access to CS2 may be useful if your main workflows are centered around older media, such as traditional prepress, pre-HTML5, and standard-definition video. But if your work depends on keeping up with today’s emerging media such as HD and DSLR video, output to online streaming video, the latest camera raw formats, and content for mobile devices such as eBooks and responsive web sites, your business would benefit more from using a current version.
  • Can you use CS2 to get  an upgrade discount? Some have asked whether having a CS2 serial number would make you eligible for upgrade discounts. No, it would not. [At the time this article was originally written in 2013], upgrade discounts for the current version (CS6) are available to registered users of the previous version (CS5). It used to be that you could upgrade from the last two previous versions, but even that wouldn’t reach far back enough to make CS2 useful to obtain an upgrade discount.
  • How good is Photoshop CS2? Photoshop CS2 is quite powerful, and if it does what you need then it’s great. But it lacks recent GPU acceleration support, support for recent raw formats, HDR and panorama tools, profile-based lens correction, 3D, video editing, better selection and masking tools, the entire content-aware feature set, Lightroom integration, and more. (For a list of the many changes since CS2, see the Photoshop version history on Wikipedia.) Photoshop CS2 is quite suitable for a computer of the same era, but like the rest of CS2 it won’t make the best use of current hardware.

In the end, having access to CS2 is most valuable to users who need to keep CS2 running on aging hardware and have not already moved up to a more recent version. There are not a lot of those users left, but they are exactly the users Adobe wanted to support with the new builds. If your business is built on computers, cameras, and other equipment that are a lot newer than 2005, it makes sense that the software you use should be optimized for the up-to-date tools you use. So if you feel you’re being excluded from a deal by not being eligible for a free copy of CS2, keep in mind that CS2 is not the most competitive set of tools for today’s media and hardware.

Is this a good sign for the future of old activated software?

On the whole, the Adobe move is good news. Since activation became standard procedure at companies like Microsoft and Adobe, users have wondered how long they can count on activation servers functioning reliably, and what happens if companies stop supporting activated software. Adobe has now set a precedent of letting old activation-based software continue to function without needing activation, and we can all hope that remains true in the future…at least for perpetual licenses.

(The reason I mention perpetual licenses is because Adobe Creative Cloud subscription licenses work differently. Adobe has made it clear that Creative Cloud software stops working if you stop paying the monthly fee, and that when a new version of Creative Cloud-based software comes out the old version will continue to work for only one more year.) [Update: That policy has changed over time. For a while, Creative Cloud members had access to versions as far back as CS6. In 2019, Adobe announced that Creative Cloud members will have access to the two most recent versions of the software.]


  1. You are wrong. What moderators on adobe forum have no legal value. The fact is that adobe have a downaload page with serials for cs2. The eula of the software don’t limit in any way the use of this version. Soo it’s free for everyone who download it.

      1. Actually gino is right.
        As long as the download page + license agreement of the software itself doesn’t state otherwise (free public on official webpage), his comment in the forums has no legal value (in EU at least).

    1. I just revisited the Adobe document I linked to in the post, and the wording has been changed to make clear that the download and serial number for CS2 is for license holders only. I can’t say how EU or other law might interpret that, but the message is a lot more consistent and official now.

  2. It still doesn’t make any sense why Adobe wouldn’t just contact those registered users privately and send them the new product key. If responsible users had registered their software, then Adobe would have their email addresses already. The way Adobe did it was very misleading and their vague statements are even more misleading. Personally I don’t care because most of my Adobe software has been upgraded to CS6. Anyone with an Adobe ID can get the download links and product keys from their account. That’s where it belongs and not on a public page.

    1. A little historical context might help explain it. CS2 came out when buying boxed software was still the norm, when software was usually bought from a reseller and people wouldn’t get around to filling out the registration card and dropping it in the mail. Because of this, it’s possible that Adobe may not be able to directly contact the majority of CS2 users. Heck, back then I didn’t send in all my registration cards because I was usually able to get upgrades without doing so; companies often needed nothing more than the serial number.

      Things have changed a lot in the last five years or so. Now it’s common to buy and download software directly from the Adobe Store, so that automatic registration can connect serial numbers to the purchaser’s email address. That should make many more users reachable now, but it wasn’t the case when CS2 came out in 2005.

      Yes, the language used in their public statements have resulted in some confusion. It’s possible that they were caught off guard by the activation server glitch that caused the CS2 server shutdown and they might be working out a more official approach for the future, but that’s just a guess since I don’t work there. I wouldn’t be surprised if they’ll have a more solid policy when it’s time to shut down the CS3 activation servers.

  3. I have a concern that is only tangentially related to this issue. I’m a CS6 user. Whenever I have to reinstall, I have to go right back to my original Macromedia programs (over 20 years ago) and install all the updates I’ve bought since then. Apart from this being a tedious process (and I’ve lost activations along the way due to the cause of the reinstall), if Adobe switches off its activation servers, I risk not being able to install CS6.

    I think Adobe could address this issue by providing an installation set that accepted your prior updates as given, since they have registration records. Have you come across this problem before, Conrad?

    1. When I have gone through upgrade validations it’s usually been more like the experience that William Boswell describes below, where I haven’t had to actually install every instance of the old software. I’ve only had to enter an old serial number when the upgrade asks for it. In the future, it might be worth seeing if you don’t have to go back as far as you might think. Yes, the activation limit can be a problem in situations like migrating from a computer that can’t be deactivated because it died, but fortunately Adobe was flexible enough the last time I asked them to reset mine.

      I haven’t tried installing CS2 on the one remaining old computer I have that can still run it (needs a new hard drive), but I’m guessing that the CS2 download that Adobe provided may not be concerned with whether you have prior updates. It sounds like they only care if you have a valid CS2 license, retail or upgrade.

      One experience I’ve had that’s like yours is with an older version of Microsoft Office for Mac where the latest updater wouldn’t install until each and every previous updater was downloaded and installed in sequence, which was not fun.

  4. How did you upgrade from a 20-year-old Macromedia program to CS6? I thought Adobe software had to be no more than three versions back to be eligible and that expired the end of 2012. I don’t know what the last version of MM software was before Adobe acquired it.

    I upgraded from Macromedia Studio MX 2004 to Dreamweaver CS4 in 2009 which is not 20 years ago. I don’t think MX 2004 or before is even eligible for an upgrade to CS6. At least not that I’ve found.

    The only thing I had to do with DW CS4 was enter the serial number from Macromedia Studio MX 2004 to show my eligibility. I didn’t have to install the old software. Of course, I had serial number issues with it that required calls to Adobe every time I reinstalled to get the challenge/response codes. I upgraded to CS5.5 to get rid of that headache because Adobe support was useless.

    1. “How did you upgrade from a 20-year-old Macromedia program to CS6?”
      I didn’t. I went from one release to the next until I ended up with CS6. (Macromedia Studio 3 – Dreamweaver and Fireworks – package was the first product, then Studio 8, CS3, and upwards.)

      This is why I find it so tedious, although it’s probable that I’m overdoing it, thinking it needed the whole box and dice installed before I could proceed. Maybe, as Conrad says, just install one item from each release and see how I go.

      However, what would be best for me is if Adobe said, “Okay, you don’t need to go through all those upgrades again, as we’ll issue you with a special licence to install that last upgrade.” However, I doubt they would even consider it. Customer relations isn’t their strong suit.

      1. Adobe reps told me they’d give me a new serial number for Dreamweaver CS4 if I had that problem again. When it happened a second time, they told me they couldn’t issue me a new SN. They lie. So don’t count on any resolution from Adobe.

        I would think you could just use the last Adobe product SN to enter into CS6. Customer service at Adobe is the worst. Them and Symantec must use the same customer service reps from India.

  5. So if I understand correctly what you’re saying, I can reinstall my CS6 upgrade and instead of it checking for the presence of the previous version, all I need to do is supply my CS5.5 licence number when prompted and I’m back in business?

    1. I haven’t had to reinstall CS6 specifically yet, so I’m not sure. But what I did say is that next time you do need to reinstall, it’s worth experimenting a little to see if you might not have to go back as far as you thought.

      1. I upgraded from a number of standalone Adobe products and only had to enter the serial numbers for my previous product. For instance, I upgraded from Photoshop CS4 to CS6, Premiere Pro CS5 to CS6, Audition 5.5 to CS6, Dreamweaver CS4 to CS5.5, and Acrobat 8 to 9.

        In some cases, I was installing without the previous program on my system because I did a clean install for other reasons. All I had to enter was my previous version serial number. I don’t know about doing it with older Adobe versions prior to CS3 because most of my upgrades started with that version.

  6. A very knowledge person on the Adobe forums states categorically that I don’t need to have 5.5 installed before installing the CS6 upgrade. So that’s a big relief.

    And thanks to both of you for being so helpful.

  7. Does anyone know whether Adobe ever changed their stance on this matter? CS2 is still on multiple download sites and being advertised as freeware. I wasn’t even aware of the legality issues at first and was linked by a friend who’s been using it, similarly unaware, for years.

    I would actually like to own and use the CS2 suite – is there ANY way I can really do that now? After all, it’s technically working and loaded onto my PC, and I’m even still within the month free trial equivalent period, were this actually direct from Adobe.

    I also hold licenses for a newer version (CS3) although in fairness not for every seperate component – does that entitle me to the use of anything from CS2 if my CS3 discs fail or vanish (again)?

    1. Hi Debbie,

      (Note: Because I don’t work for Adobe, what’s below is my interpretation of their policies. Talking to Adobe might get you a more precise answer.)

      I don’t think Adobe ever changed their stance. The removal of the activation requirement was always intended to let CS2 customers keep using their software after the activation server went down. I guess the analogy from the Adobe point of view would be, if you take down a fence around the family vegetable garden it’s to make access easier for the family, not to let the whole neighborhood have free vegetables.

      Adobe doesn’t sell licenses for anything before CS6, so unfortunately I don’t think there is a way to buy a new CS2 license from Adobe. I think the only possibility is to look online if someone is selling their CS2 license. Adobe will then let you become the legal owner if the buyer and seller complete a Transfer of License:

      I don’t know if there is a limit as to how far back in versions Adobe will do a Transfer of License.

      About your CS3 license, as far as I’ve seen a license is specific to a version so I don’t think it helps you with CS2. The CS3 license helps you with newer versions in that it made you eligible for upgrades to CS4 through CS6 (I think, you would want to double check). Of those CS6 is the only one still sold new.

  8. They just removed that link. Can’t download anymore. It’s a good thing I did before they shut down this page as it’s the version that can play my old HD sony files. It has a cineform avi compression and I can’t make it work at all on my new mac. Everything points to gopro format, but it’s not the same as I can play that without problem. If you have any suggestions for me, I’m open to them. My main goal to recompress this movie I have into a better hd format. Thank you.

    1. Wow, you’re right, the link is down. Will have to see if it’s a mistake or if they’ve removed it permanently. Thanks for letting me know.

      [Edit] I asked Adobe on Twitter and they said that the CS2 page being down is a temporary problem, and they are working on bringing it back:

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