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LD On The DL: The Vectorworks Dilemma

I love Vectorworks.  I  learned to draft on AutoCAD in college, but Vectorworks stole my heart at an early age.  Everyone in the industry used it.  Plus, with the Spotlight add-on, all of us now possessed this amazing set of tools —  auto-instrument spacing and numbering, label legends, instrument key generator — that removed some of the tedium of drafting.  Through the Renderworks add-on and Vectorworks’ powerful 3D tool set, I learned to create concept “sketches” for potential clients that could show my design ideas.  Even if I had no project to specifically work on, I used to create renderings of elaborately lit production designs for fun.  Now the program has become an intrinsic part of my design process; I cannot imagine life without it.  This love affair has lasted for over thirteen years.  Last summer during a load-in, I began wondering how many people actually owned a legal copy of Vectorworks and/or were abiding by the user agreement.  After asking around and much circumlocution, it turned out the answer was almost nobody.

Now, now.  Don’t act so surprised.  Chances are most of you probably don’t either.  

I feel pretty certain saying that, too.  I created a list of people I currently and formerly worked with throughout my many years of service.  I can think of only five people who actually bought a legit copy of Vectorworks — five — out of perhaps hundreds of lighting and scenic designers and electricians.  Five.  Even if I am off by a factor of 10, I would wager Vectorworks is our industry’s most pirated software.  The amount of money Nemetschek loses surely makes their accountants weep in frustration.  At every trade show I’ve attended where Vectorworks had a booth, I wanted to ask, “I love your program. I think everyone here does.  But surely you’re aware that a majority of people in this room are either stealing it or helping others to steal it?  You all know that, right?”  So how does all this piracy happen?  Through my own history, which I think is broadly typical of many industry professionals my age, let’s take a long look. 

We start our story in elementary school.  On an IBM PC Junior, I learned the basics of computers.  By middle school, I could tweak the boot-up sequence of our family’s Intel Pentium machine to create the optimal environment for playing various computer games.  My family had a Prodigy account before the world wide web was either worldly, wide, or resembled a web.  By late middle school, I was a full on internet junkie.  By college, I owned a beast of a machine and a high-speed network to plug it into.  With the help of WinAmp and Napster, my compatriots and I radically changed the record industry because we stopped buying CDs.  We regularly “shared” software with each other, too.  Nobody thought anything of giving someone Photoshop or AutoCAD.  You just need ask.  In the graduate student office, I ran into Vectorworks and quickly became dependent on it.  My hand drafting was terrible and slow.  Vectorworks and Spotlight created professional looking documents and plots, emblematic of the designer I wanted to become.  Within a few years, I would never draft by hand again. 

So by the time I turned 22, I was extremely computer and internet savvy, had never needed to buy a piece of software in my life, worked as an electrician to pay the bills, and had absolutely no money.  I think this roughly described many of my peers at the time.  Today’s 22 year-olds probably more so but with larger amounts of student loan debt.  

Desperate to stop humping feeder cable and actually be a designer, my big break came when an event company hired me.  They emailed me a floor plan of the venue and asked me to be the LD on the show.  The file was a MCD file, the old Vectorworks file format.  I had a slight issue, though.  I didn’t own a copy of Vectorworks.  In some form or another, I think this moment happens to most everyone in the industry.  So what are your options really? 

You can buy the program.  That is, of course, the legal and ethical thing to do.  However, in my first year in New York, I made $19,000 before taxes.  Vectorworks and Spotlight equated to several months worth of rent.  Put another way, the price of Vectorworks equaled 15% of my annual post-tax or net income.  This presents a real challenge and the ethics of the situation suddenly get malleable, especially with such a victim amorphous crime like software piracy.  The thinking goes, I need the software to do this job in which I’ll make more money and further my career.  I cannot afford the software.  I cannot turn down this job.  I cannot continue being an electrician/bartender/cater waiter.  What do I do?  

One illicit option involves file sharing sites.  Don’t have a piece of software?  Download a cracked version of it from someone who does as if college never ended.  A foray into the deep web isn’t even required. A quick Google search reveals many places to download Vectorworks as well.  You risk viruses and other unsavory bits of malware that could embarrass you or blow up your computer, but that’s a risk many are willing to take.  Desperate times and all that.   

Another option involves “borrowing” it from someone you know who owns it.  Many companies and small production firms buy a copy and then freely distribute it to their employees or regular freelancers who ask.  Designers let their assistants use their copy, and then the assistant just kind of keeps it.  I cannot say how many times I’ve seen a serial number change hands on job sites.  The nature of our business is very collaborative and rushed; often many people use and contribute to the same Vectorworks file.  Thus, several people may need access.  Don’t have it?  Here, use mine.  It’s that easy.  It’s also still software piracy.       

Vectorworks does have controls to prevent theft in recent versions.  One method involves public shaming of sorts, where files from illegal copies will not open.  Not entirely sure who Nemetschek is punishing more with this move.  Regardless, many my age work around such obstacles.  I see on the web long discussions and various how-to’s posted.  One of Nemetschek’s more effective moves was bricking every version on the Mac before 2013 (I’ve heard mixed reviews about 2012’s functionality), which punished illegal and legal users in one decisive kick to the gut.  The collective cry which occurred when us Mac users upgraded to the Mavericks OS and lost their version can still be heard.  To be fair, Nemetschek blames Apple for making changes deep in the OS which they cannot fix and have no control over.  Coincidentally — I’m sure — the versions that survived must be activated online with the company’s servers before they are useable.  Might Windows users expect a similar, unceremonious culling?  Regardless, cracked versions of the newer releases are likely to appear eventually.  I’ve already seen work-arounds on other Macs involving Parallels or VMware and older Windows versions of Vectorworks … which still nobody actually bought.  

When everyone was stealing music, the industry realized CD sales were never coming back and that they had to evolve.  Soon the CD will vanish forever and record companies became vastly different corporations than they were 20 years ago.  Similarly, Adobe got tired of their industry’s people stealing Photoshop and Illustrator and evolved as well.  In both examples the consumer pushed the company or industry in a new direction and, now, things will never be the same again.  This process is happening all over.  I think consumers of Vectorworks are pushing, too.  Through our actions this on-going piracy orgy makes a pretty clear statement:  something needs to change, the old model is broken, and until things do this relationship will continue to be dysfunctional.  So what’s a software company to do?         

Adobe’s Creative Suite, which typically includes some combination of Bridge, Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign, Dreamweaver, and a myriad of other goodies, may offer a path forward.  Now using Creative Cloud, consumers can sign up for monthly access to the software and services they need.  Adobe also built in cloud disk space for storage, backup, and sharing of files between users as well as other support options.  Power users and businesses can tailor plans to suit their needs.  We suddenly have pricing options, the consumer has control, and stealing Adobe’s products start to look less appealing.  Having an always up-to-date Photoshop with cloud storage for a few hundred a year feels like a really great deal.  Much to my wife’s annoyance, I spend more than that a year on lattes.  I have a terrible caffeine addiction. 

Nemetschek could also simplify Vectorworks and sell a “light” or reduced functionality version at a steep discount.  Most electricians and designers couldn't care less about 3D tools and features.  They need 2D and they need Spotlight.  Vectorworks' rendering engine largely goes un-tapped.  This approach also has precedent in other software platforms.  For every editor that uses Final Cut Pro, there must be 1,000 soccer moms who use iMovie.  iPhoto is nice, but Aperture has a lot more power.  Adobe came out with Photoshop Elements, a simpler version of Photoshop, that power users aren’t very interested in but works well for normal people.  Similarly, Vectorworks possesses enormous power that most never fully use.  Paying full freight for unused features is the exact opposite of giving consumers control.  Record companies forced us to buy the full album when all we wanted was a single song.  Look how that ultimately turned out. 

Before concluding, I’m obligated to mention just one more thing only because everyone I know has complained about it.  I won’t even elaborate, I’ll just come right out and say it:  for God’s sake, give bulk discounts. 

Perhaps Nemetschek has thought of all this and decided to keeps things status quo.  Perhaps they don’t care about starving LDs stealing their software because starving LDs aren’t their target customer.  Perhaps it would require too much time and money to create a simplified version or radically reimagine how Vectorworks is bought and sold.  Easier just to lock it down.  Perhaps it makes no sense to invest in our portion of the market because their profit centers lay with other more lucrative industries.  Perhaps I’ve just annoyed everyone by calling attention to our collective open secret. 

For much of my career, my employer gave me Vectorworks to use on company projects.  I have no idea if they were legal copies or not.  Judging by my past employers, probably not.  I eventually ponied up the cash and bought my very own version.  A funny thing happened, however.  Instead of seeing the possibilities my two-plus grand got me, everywhere I see is waste.  

For example, I can Extend NURBS, except that most light plots don’t use Non-Uniform Rational B-Splines.  Similarly, I saw the Simple Beam Calculator and thought, Cool, I have an instrument beam tool!  Turns out, no, the Simple Beam Calculator has nothing to do with beams of light.  I can create Tapered Extrudes, you know, for those times a 2D plot calls for a cone or pyramid.  Or how about Engineering Properties, which according to the help, “Calculates the area, perimeter, and centroid of 2D objects.  Also calculates moments of inertia about the centroid and about an alternate axis where the origin of the alternate axis is defined by a 2D locus.”  Moments of inertia?  And what’s a centroid?  I also have a symbol folder full of toilets.  Perhaps they run off of DMX now?  How much did I pay for all these features which I’ll never, ever use?  Also, why did I have to pay for them?   

Few topics elicit such animated discourse in our industry than the cost and user agreement of Vectorworks.  I’ve seen the most calm, stoic production managers build to a roar of frustration as they opined their objections.  Some say in disgust they refuse to ever buy the software on principle because they feel the current price is extortionate.  I think frustration makes sense; I can certainly understand it.  I may love Vectorworks, but in any relationship when one half deafly dictates the terms to the other half, frustration always ensues. 

So where does all this leave us?  I know as long as Lightwright (another industry standard) and Vectorworks remain in bed together, a cheaper alternative or potential competitor will have a hard time gaining marketshare.  Less competition never bodes well for consumers.  We all know software piracy is theft.  Few people would walk out of a store with a copy of Vectorworks tucked in their bag.  Virtual stealing carries less risk and stigma, especially for people my age and younger, but is still stealing nonetheless.  I also know copyright protections can be defeated.  Fighting piracy can’t solely be about locking software up but rather understanding what factors lead people to steal it in the first place and then giving consumers more appealing options.  I also know that being king today doesn’t guarantee being king tomorrow, especially without evolving along side the consumer.  The past is very clear on this.  Lastly, I know the internet continues to alter old pricing paradigms.  

Companies ignore this change, or any change really, at their peril.


Lance Darcy is a Lighting Designer and Director of Photography for The Lighting Design Group, based in New York City

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