Faced with sharing 75% of revenues from Amazon with Canonical, the Banshee maintainers have opted to disable the Amazon store by default when Banshee ships in Ubuntu 11.04. Instead, the media player will ship with support for purchasing music through Ubuntu One's service, and users will have to change the defaults to be able to support GNOME.
In a nutshell — Banshee is a media/music player for Linux that has support for purchasing music via Amazon MP3. The revenues have always gone directly to the GNOME Foundation. Historically, the default music player in Ubuntu has been Rhythmbox, but that's changing in 11.04 to Banshee. The problem, at least as Canonical seems to see it? Amazon MP3 support in Banshee competes with Ubuntu's own offering, Ubuntu One — which also has support for purchasing music. The alternative? Canonical offered to leave the Amazon Store on by default, but take a 75% cut by changing the affiliate code and then passing a paltry 25% on to GNOME. The good news is that Canonical conferred with the Banshee team and gave them the option, so they elected to disable the store by default. Users can re-enable it if they are aware of the Amazon store, but defaults are powerful: Many users may never even realize that the Amazon store is an option.
In short — if you use Banshee to buy music through Amazon MP3, a cut of that goes to GNOME. Not to the Banshee Project itself, not to Novell which had sponsored much of Banshee's development, but to the non-profit GNOME Foundation. Disclaimer: I used to work for Novell and supported the idea of the affiliate fees going to GNOME rather than Novell trying to take a cut and offending other projects that ship Banshee.
What's at stake here? It's not mountains of cash, but not chump change either. Currently, Banshee is on pace to contribute about $10,000 per year to GNOME through its affiliate revenue with Amazon. Which is in line with what some companies pay for membership in the GNOME Foundation.
Apparently Canonical were worried that their music service wasn't competitive enough with Amazon MP3. Well, really? It isn't. Amazon has aggressive pricing and (from what I've seen) a better selection. Amazon is also aggressive with promotions and offering free music, which makes it a fairly attractive service to people looking for new music as well as trying to fill out their music collection with music they already are aware of.
While I have no problem with Canonical trying to make money on Ubuntu One, I think this sets a lousy precedent. If every vendor either takes a grab at affiliate fees for projects or overrides defaults, upstream projects have no good way to raise funds. Money from Amazon affiliate sales helps fund GNOME hackfests and activities, which ultimately benefit Canonical as well. In fairness, Canonical is also a GNOME Foundation member and sponsor. But this is discouraging for a company that acts as downstream to open source projects to essentially step in and change the defaults so that funds are redirected to the company rather than the project. This is particularly discouraging since a great deal of the work on Banshee has been sponsored not by Canonical, but by Novell. What's the incentive for a company like Novell to direct affiliate fees to a non-profit if their competitors don't?
But it might, and I stress might, have been more palatable if Canonical had sought a even split, or 25% in favor of Canonical and 75% in favor of GNOME.
It turns out, Banshee isn't the only project that Canonical cuts in on. The company also swaps in its Amazon affiliate ID for the Amazon search in Firefox.
Does Canonical deserve a cut of the revenue for distributing Banshee and Firefox? There's an argument to be made that Banshee and Firefox wouldn't be in front of those users in the first place if it weren't for Canonical. But ask yourself whether this would seem Kosher if Microsoft or Apple toggled the bits through an update and replaced the Firefox affiliate code when running on their platforms. I'm guessing that scheme would have very few supporters.
I also wonder, how do non-Canonical contributors to Ubuntu feel about this? From what I've seen, this looks to be purely driven by Canonical, but shouldn't the Ubuntu community have a chance to weigh in on this as well? It'd be interesting to see whether Ubuntu contributors would prefer the monies go to GNOME or Canonical, or an even split.
Canonical does need to find ways to make a dollar to keep the lights on and employ developers, etc. But I do think that they could find other ways to do it than to siphon money from a non-profit that produces much of the code that they ship. Especially when other companies that are involved with the project have passed on taking a cut, and when the revenue should be a very small amount of money for the company to worry about.
Joe 'Zonker' Brockmeier is a freelance writer and editor with more than 10 years covering IT. Formerly the openSUSE Community Manager for Novell, Brockmeier is a longtime free and open source software advocate. He has written for many publications, including Linux Magazine, Sys Admin, Linux Pro Magazine, IBM developerWorks, Linux.com, CIO.com, Linux Weekly News, ZDNet, and many others.