The Advanced Custom Fields (ACF) marketing team at Delicious Brains kicked up a sandstorm over the weekend after it emailed its lifetime license holders, asking them to consider signing up for a discounted subscription. Despite Delicious Brains’ explicit promise that they would never be required to pay for ACF updates in the future, the sales email insinuates that the development team is in need of appreciation in the form of annual paid subscriptions:

I know you already have a lifetime license for ACF Pro, but I’m hoping you’ll consider signing up for a discounted subscription to support our ongoing work in continuing to improve Advanced Custom Fields.

We’ve shipped two major releases (5.10 and 5.11) since we took over development of the plugin from Elliot in June, including a full-featured REST API! If you’re a fan of the work we’ve done so far, nothing will show our developers that you appreciate them more than signing up for an ACF Pro subscription, especially since you already have a lifetime license.

This bewildering pitch to lifetime license holders landed in email boxes on the Friday after Thanksgiving in the US. It drew more attention after Paul Charlton, creator of WPTuts, tweeted a screenshot of the email, saying it left “a really bad taste” in his mouth. Charlton also recorded a reaction video that succinctly articulates why the email was so irksome to many lifetime license customers. He suggested Delicious Brains instead take the approach of offering a discount on their other subscription products.

“If you’re going to broach the topic of asking lifetime subscribers to suddenly pay for $250/year for the same product, I would just think that something, anything, could be offered,” one lifetime license holder said.

Some lifetime license holders found the email pitch was especially perplexing after the confusing messaging when Delicious Brains acquired ACF. A hasty response to a customer inquiry caused lifetime license holders to question if the company would continue honoring the agreement after the acquisition.

“Lifetime license holders will get all ACF Pro software updates forever,” Delicious Brains founder and CEO Brad Touesnard said at the time. “They won’t be required to pay for version 6.0 or any other major or minor releases in the future. They signed up for updates for life, so we’ll continue to deliver on that promise forever.”

Some lifetime license holders tried to read between the lines of the recent sales emails and wondered if Delicious Brains was signaling an end to its commitment.

“What happened to our lifetime licenses being honored and we would get full and continued updates for life?” Brian J McCracken said in response to the email. “They haven’t said they aren’t doing that but talk about skirting the intention with this guilt trip.” Others are also skeptical, speculating that Delicious Brains may repurpose the code for a new product so they can “kill off the LTD’s once and for all.”

“I honestly believe they WANT the LTD owners to leave,” WordPress developer Wendell Harness said. “Think about it — they won’t have to support us anymore. An email like this may garner a few buy-ins while also wiping away a bunch of people they no longer want to support. It’s brilliant. Rude, but still brilliant.”

Those on the other side of the argument disagree with the notion that lifetime license holders should expect updates indefinitely.

“You paid a hundred bucks or so 5 years ago and you expect a company to keep adding value to your business that could have been generating hundred of thousands of dollars in revenue,” 10up WordPress engineer Clayton Collie said in response to critics of the email. “They could abandon the project. How would you feel about that?”

After the sales email created new confusion on the status of lifetime licenses, ACF tweeted to reaffirm their commitment to honor them, but many recipients had already formed their own conclusions about the intent of the email.

“We’ve heard from many lifetime customers who are happy with the work we’ve already been doing to improve ACF and glad to contribute by subscribing,” Touesnard said in response to customers who suggested the company offer something in return for signing up to a new annual subscription. “If you don’t feel the way they do, that’s fine, you aren’t required to subscribe.”

The heated conversations have renewed the controversial topic of selling lifetime licenses in the WordPress product space. Few have done this successfully long term, and it gets trickier when a company is acquired.

“I see both sides for this – as someone who bought a lifetime ACF license 7 years ago and also a plugin dev,” Amber Hinds said. “Really lifetime licenses should be offered with extreme caution.”

In many cases, when early adopters purchase a lifetime license, they are usually paying much more than the regular license, for an unproven product that isn’t guaranteed a future. This gives newer products the money they need to build momentum but also offers something in return. It’s a transaction where each participant extracts some value and assumes a share of the risk.

In this particular scenario, ACF appears to be mistaking its relationship with lifetime license holders as something more akin to investors or donors. Customers who purchase lifetime licenses rarely share those same motivations.

It’s quite unusual for a Black Friday sales email to ask for contributions for a product consumers have already paid for long ago. This unorthodox sales approach and timing was off-putting to many of the recipients. Was it worth upsetting a slew of customers who are not bringing ACF any money for the rest of its life as a product? Only the Delicious Brains team knows how successful the campaign has been so far. When asked if the email is generating new signups from lifetime license customers, Touesnard said the developer who pulls that report was not currently available.

“Does a company that spans across five very popular products require a donation approach, to keep a product like ACF, afloat?” WordPress business podcaster Matt Medeiros said in a post titled “WordPress, the multi-billion dollar software industry that has us begging for money.”

“If so, we better start getting better at pricing and voting with our dollars,” he said.

“Either way, expecting lifetime updates for one price, coupled with a part-time donation strategy, is bad for both the consumer and the business. I don’t see any other major markets operating this way.”