Monday 28 February 2011
Canonical, you're breaking my heart
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I've been resisting blogging or talking about this topic publicly, but I'm so frustrated with how Canonical dealt with the whole topic that I can't resist more... If you don't want to read my stuff, I encourage you to go read Zonker's articles about the story.
Very short summary for those who didn't follow:
- the Ubuntu community decided to switch to Banshee as default music player.
- Canonical offers the Ubuntu One Music Store in the default Ubuntu music player to let people buy music online. Referral fees go to Canonical (as far as I know).
- Banshee comes with an Amazon MP3 Store plugin to let people buy music online. Referral fees go to the GNOME Foundation.
- with the switch to Banshee by default in Ubuntu, Canonical proposed two options to the Banshee developers: disable the Amazon MP3 Store plugin by default, or changing the affiliate code for the Amazon MP3 Store and giving 25% of the referral fees to the GNOME Foundation (the other 75% would be going to Canonical). Banshee developers chose to keep the money going to the GNOME Foundation, and to have the plugin disabled by default.
- a few days later, Canonical changed their mind and decided that the Amazon MP3 Store would stay enabled, and that 25% of all referral fees (Amazon MP3 Store and Ubuntu One Music Store) would go to the GNOME Foundation.
There are a few things that are wrong with this story, and I've read a few things that made me wonder if some of the people standing for Canonical's decision in the comments I've read have a good understanding of everything (and maybe they do; everybody is entitled to his own opinions after all). It's worth pointing out first that I'm annoyed at Canonical, and not at Ubuntu, and my first two items below explain this:
Money does not go to Ubuntu. It goes to Canonical. I'll start with that, because I feel this was neglected by most. I would be much less annoyed if the money went to Ubuntu instead of Canonical. This way I would know that the money would be used for Free Software; I would still not be completely happy (see other points below), but that would make me feel better. But it turns out there is no active Ubuntu Foundation (the Ubuntu Foundation does exist, but is nowhere near active or alive), which means there is no real way for Ubuntu, as a project, to collect money. The result is that we have no idea how the money will be used, in concrete terms; and this raises accounting questions.
This is not an Ubuntu decision, this is a decision from Canonical. As far as I can tell, this decision was not discussed in any way inside the Ubuntu community, and I have serious concerns that such a decision that does affect Ubuntu is not taken by the Ubuntu community. I've added an agenda item to the next Community Council meeting (tomorrow, March 1st, at 21:00 UTC, in #ubuntu-meeting). To be blunt, though, I have absolutely no hope of open discussion there: I've yet to heard of anything that is agreed by the Community Council that goes against the interests of Canonical. I believe that is a serious flaw in the Ubuntu governance, and it's certainly not the first time this is highlighted.
It is legal, but it is not necessarily right. Of course it is legal because of Banshee's license. Nobody is arguing about that. However, the will of the Banshee developers is to donate money to the GNOME Foundation. They've expressed this will twice: when they first chose to donate the money to the GNOME Foundation, and when they chose one of the two options proposed by Canonical. So Canonical's decision is explicitly going against the will of the developers. It is legal, but going against the will of the developers is definitely wrong.
Releasing Banshee as free software doesn't mean Banshee developers don't care about how their software is changed or used. I've read several times that Banshee developers could simply have chosen another license to avoid this issue. That's an extremely dangerous slope: many free software developers choose a free software license because they believe in freedom and they believe that releasing their software under these terms will help improve the world in some way. That's our contribution to making the world a better place. We also believe that, usually, people will understand what we want to achieve and will respect that. Canonical's decision, and how it was taken, doesn't show any such respect. Should we stop contributing to making the world a better place because a company is doing things wrong? I don't think so. We should try to make that company a better citizen, and keep making the world a better place. Suggesting that we can simply choose a non-free license is suggesting that we stop trying to achieve our dreams. Sure, we could do that, but that's certainly not the right solution.
A 75%/25% deal does not reflect what Canonical brings to Banshee. I've read this several times: people think it's actually a fair deal because Ubuntu does most of the job, by integrating Banshee in Ubuntu and by exposing it to many more users. I'm disturbed when I read this. The fact is that Ubuntu chose to adopt Banshee by default because it was the best solution. If it was the best solution already, then somehow, the Banshee developers did a hell of a great job and Banshee actually improves Ubuntu. And that part is certainly more than 25% of the whole job, isn't it? I mean, if that's not the case, then certainly Ubuntu would be shipping with something better already. Also, this way of thinking gets me wondering: do people seriously suggest that Ubuntu would exist and be successful without great upstream developers? The work done to build Ubuntu is integration. It is not easy, there's no need to argue about that and I know this because I work on a distribution. So I know it's far from trivial. But compared to actually writing the applications upstream... Most of the hard work lives upstream, and integration, while key, is
only a small percentage of the work. Even the argument that Ubuntu will bring more users falls apart for me because Ubuntu brings more users to applications, but only because those applications themselves are great. Ubuntu can only bring something to the applications because the applications bring something to Ubuntu.
No, a 75%/25% deal is not necessarily a better deal for the GNOME Foundation, money-wise. Several people mentioned that 25% of referrals fees of the plugin enabled by default is higher than 100% of referrals fees of the plugin disabled by default. How can we know? We can't. We simply don't know. I've heard that the Ubuntu One Music Store is... suboptimal, so I think it's also a fair position to assume that many people would have found on the web that there's a great Amazon MP3 Store plugin, and would have switched to it. It could therefore turn out that in the end, maybe, even if the plugin would have been disabled by default, it would have brought more money to the GNOME Foundation. Who's right? Let's be honest and agree that we don't know.
No, even if it's a better deal money-wise, a 75%/25% deal is not necessarily a better deal for the GNOME Foundation. You know what? Please don't put words in the mouth of the GNOME Foundation, and leave the GNOME Foundation decide for itself. The GNOME Foundation is a non-profit organization and while the GNOME Foundation could use more money, it's certainly not the goal of the Foundation. As a past Foundation Board member, my informed guess is that most members of the GNOME Foundation would agree that respecting the will of authors is more important than money. If the GNOME Foundation decided to take a public position about what is best for itself, it could well be something as simple as
this deal is not in our best interests. I'm of course not saying this is the position of the GNOME Foundation since that's not my job, but I hope this helps people understand that more money doesn't make the deal a better one for the Foundation.
There is now no way to make the money go to the GNOME Foundation. With the current decision, there is no way for the user to choose to leave the money to the GNOME Foundation. I've seen at least a comment from Jono suggesting that Banshee could distribute a new plugin for that. I can certainly understand that Canonical doesn't want to do that itself, but Ubuntu people could. Is there any reason that Ubuntu can't ship this small plugin (17 KB) itself, on the CD, or even in a package in the Ubuntu repositories? If people would do the job, would the package get accepted on the CD? I don't want to guess, so I'll leave the question open.
The whole decision process is just alarmly broken. Canonical came with two options, and one was chosen by Banshee developers. There was some reaction in blog posts, news articles and comments about the two options, that were already negative about the proposed choice. And then Canonical came back with what I understand is a unilateral decision, that does not respect the previous explicit choice of Banshee developers. Sure, there's now 25% of the referrals fees from the Ubuntu One Music Store, but did some people really think that would make Banshee developers change their mind? How can this sound right?
I'm sure I could go on and on, if I'd take more time, but I'm not sure it's worth it. If the deal was something like 25%/75% or even 50/%50, I think I'd feel a bit better but I'd still want the money to go to Ubuntu instead of Canonical, especially as Canonical did absolutely nothing to develop this Amazon MP3 Store plugin. I'd be surprised if the Ubuntu community would have no use for money that it could decide how to spend.
The bottom line is that I'm highly annoyed. It's just yet another illustration that, even though some parts of Canonical care (or try to care) about upstream, in the end, what matters to Canonical is money. I'm even more annoyed because I have many good friends at Canonical, and that makes me not want to dislike their company.
Canonical, you're breaking my heart: I thought you understood the spirit of Free Software, but you're just another normal company that is first going after money.