Canonical has gone back to the drawing board on its affiliate deal with Banshee saying the previous proposals to the Banshee team were "mistakes." Canonical is now enabling the Amazon store by default, and also giving a 25% cut of its revenue from Banshee and Rhythmbox's Ubuntu One Store to GNOME. Though Canonical is positioning this as a result of "discussions" with the Banshee team, the company is overriding the unanimous decision from the Banshee team with its own plan.
Cristian Parrino, who leads Canonical's Online Services team, originally held discussions with the Banshee team (in this case, Aaron Bockover, Alexander Kojevnikov, Bertrand Lorentz, and Gabriel Burt) and asked whether they'd prefer to turn off the Amazon MP3 store in Banshee, or retain 25% of the affiliate fees to be earmarked for GNOME. In most other distributions, the affiliate code is left intact and 100% of any monies raised through Amazon affiliate fees are directly contributed to GNOME automatically.
Apparently it was a mistake for Parrino to give the Banshee team a choice, and now Canonical is announcing a new plan for the affiliate fees. Here's the deal: Canonical now says it will turn on the Amazon MP3 store and the Ubuntu One Store, with a 75%/25% split between Canonical and GNOME — with Canonical taking the lion's share of revenue.
To give credit where credit is due, Canonical is now offering a slice of its home-baked pie (Ubuntu One Music Store) to GNOME. That wasn't on the table previously in the two choices that Canonical previously offered to the Banshee team.
Parrino has apologized for "a situation that has resulted in the worst outcome for everyone, including putting the Banshee team in an awkward position" but then says "we believe this plan fairly addresses the interests of all parties." Whether it's fair that Canonical is taking a cut of the affiliate revenue is debatable — what isn't debatable is that Canonical has made the decision unilaterally without respecting the Banshee team's decision or consulting its own community on the policy.
In fact, Burt says that the Banshee team had unanimously opted to turn off the Amazon store when given the choice, but now "Canonical came up with their own plan: essentially the option we rejected."
Further, Burt doesn't seem pleased with the way Canonical has handled the situation. "Canonical offering us options and then going back on them when we didn't pick their preferred one was not reasonable." Lorentz says he agrees "wholeheartedly" with Burt's response.
Some who commented on the original report suggested that the Banshee team had made a mistake in choosing to turn off the store rather than taking the 25% cut. Burt says, "it is possible that GNOME will do better financially with this arrangement than if Canonical disabled the Amazon store. GNOME would do 4x better than that if our upstream code shipped unmodified, as it does in other Linux distributions.
Further, members of the Banshee team have raised questions about Canonical's handling of the deal and how it will be executed. Aaron Bockover, who founded the Banshee project, says he's concerned about accountability and wants to "ensure that 25% is indeed making it to GNOME in a timely manner, consistent with what we already have in place."
Bockover goes on to propose how this should be handled, by allowing Banshee to handle the revenue sharing through the Banshee.fm server. This would allow public disclosure of revenues and ensure that the monies flow directly to GNOME and then Canonical will get its cut.
This morning I spoke with Ubuntu community manager, Jono Bacon, about the deal. Bacon says that the Banshee team has "a right to be pissed" with Canonical "essentially going back on its word." He also said he doesn't actually have a problem with the concept of Canonical taking a cut of the affiliate deal, but admits being biased because he has worked with Canonical a long time and trusts the people at Canonical and motivation. Bacon says "as long as the money is going to free software" whether it's GNOME, Ubuntu, or another FOSS project, he's OK with it.
At the same time, Bacon says that he doesn't blame people for being angry and understands that there are people who feel Canonical should allow the money to go directly to GNOME. "Canonical has made a different decision... but I don't want to try to convince people to not be angry with that."
Bockover pointed out in his post, "while this issue was discussed between Canonical and the Banshee maintainers many times, I am not aware of Canonical involving anyone in the actual Ubuntu community."
Bacon also says he'd support a discussion with the Ubuntu community about Canonical's affiliate policies with community projects, and says "there should be more transparency." He suggested that there may be discussion of this at the next Ubuntu Developer Summit (UDS).
What's ironic is that the platforms that stand to deliver the most revenue through Banshee for GNOME are non-free: Windows and Mac OS X. Bockover says "I am excited about the new potential Banshee has in the near future to generate truly significant referral revenue for the GNOME Foundation as we near Banshee 2.0 and its availability on Windows and Mac OS X, where we will fully control its distribution as an upstream."
The policy of taking a cut of affiliate revenues from a community project like Banshee over their direct objection, regardless of what Canonical may contribute to the GNOME Foundation, disrespects the decision of the maintainers of that project. What's at issue here is more than the funds going to GNOME — it's whether a company that depends almost entirely on the community will respect the decisions of that community or at least meet them half-way.
To be perfectly clear, Canonical is well within its rights to change the affiliate code if it chooses. The license permits that, just as it permits Canonical to change any other feature. But having the right to do something doesn't constitute it being correct to do so. Offering a community project a choice and then rebuffing that decision is, at least from where I'm sitting, a very bad decision.
Yes, I'm tweaking the company a bit with the Darth Vader image. I don't think that Canonical are the evil empire, and unlike the last three Star Wars films, Ubuntu's releases have actually been improvements on the initial installments. I see this as a turning point for Canonical as it continues to grow as a business and look for more opportunities to make money to fund its growth. It may well be that Canonical has the very best intentions for the money it's trying to raise with this policy, but it's disappointing to see the company making an executive decision that disregards the Banshee team's wishes — especially once they've involved the team and asked them for input. How it handles this going forward, though, is important. Is Canonical going to listen to its community, its upstreams, or not?
It's well understood that Canonical is a business and needs to make money — but part of the company's offering is its standing in the community and it depends very, very heavily on its immediate community of Ubuntu contributors as well as the larger community that it draws from.
The policy itself is objectionable enough, but then to offer the contributors an option and then retract it is very poor community and business policy. Parrino approached the Banshee team as a representative of Canonical and offered them a choice. If Parrino was in error, it's still up to Canonical to live up to the arrangement he brokered.
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.