Canonical, Banshee, and the supremely dick move

First off, if you haven't already read Greg Grossmeier's post regarding the kerfluffle between Canonical and Banshee, please read it. Greg has a lot of salient points in his post. On a more personal note, if you've got Greg Grossmeier (who is the most even-keeled and laid-back person that I know) writing a post to tell you you're wrong, you're in the wrong. Period.

Also, I have several friends that work for Canonical. This is not an anti-Canonical post, nor is it directed at those people who work there. They work hard to make the best product they can, and I support the company for giving them and the community the forum for which to do it to the best of their ability. I am also an outsider to all of the goings-on between Banshee and Canonical, so if you're looking for an insider's perspective, you're on the wrong blog. Anything that I say about this situation is from the position of an interested, but external party.

(OK, so we got Greg's superior post out of the way, Canonical butt-kissing out of the way, disclaimers..., ah, yes... here we go)

A brief recap: Banshee was picked for the latest Ubuntu release to be the default media player. This decision happened at the latest Ubuntu Developer Summit, and was a decision that was made in the name of the Community. (ie: the community has chosen for Banshee to be the default player). Banshee ships with a plugin that allows for the user to download music from the Amazon music store. This plugin uses a referral code, which allows the owner of that code to share some of the money from the purchase. Banshee has taken the money gained by the use of this referral code and given all of it to the GNOME Foundation. Canonical has a competing music store product in partnership with 7digital. This product is called The Ubuntu One Music Store, and it uses Canonical's other product, Ubuntu One, as the delivery mechanism. Canonical also receives money from the sale of the music purchased via The Ubuntu One Music Store (abbreviated from here as U1 Store), which then gets funneled back into Canonical's operations.

Recently, Canonical approached the Banshee project to discuss their referral code for the Amazon plugin. Since Amazon competes with the U1 Store, Canonical proposed two solutions to problem, and asked The Banshee Project for which one they would choose. The proposal was either a) Permit Canonical to take 75% of the revenue from the Amazon referral code, leaving 25% to go to the Banshee project (which would then be donated back to the GNOME Foundation under the Banshee project's previous donation scheme), or b) Accept that Canonical would not ship the Amazon music store plugin, and leave it so that users could turn on the Amazon music store if they chose. The Amazon referral code would still be under the Banshee project's control, where they would likely continue giving the revenue to the GNOME Foundation.

I mentioned in a recent Lococast that Canonical, by making this proposal, had entered a no-win situation. Any proposal where someone demands 75% of what you currently have in your possession is unbalanced. Canonical might gain more money from the proposal, but the proposal itself feels usurious. It also puts the Banshee project in the uncomfortable position of having to once-again decide about the cash that it receives. I'm not sure how many organizations you've been a party to, but in my experience, some of the most heated discussions in any organization can come from money. Even discussions about what to do with money that is going to a charity. (Which charity? How Much? Are we implicitly endorsing this charity? etc., etc.) Banshee's decision to just funnel the Amazon referral money to the GNOME Foundation implies that they didn't want the money to go to waste, but couldn't keep it for themselves. Since the GNOME Foundation was something they could all agree upon as a place to funnel their money (Banshee being derived from several components that come from the GNOME Foundation), they chose to send it that way, 100%. Canonical's proposal ensured that The Banshee Project had to once again think carefully about their contributions. Given Canonical's proposal, The Banshee Project made the only decision they could make in good conscience, and that was to allow Canonical to not ship the plugin.

Had Canonical stayed with The Banshee Project's decision, it could have saved some face, and left with some dignity in what was otherwise an indecent proposal.

However, yesterday, Canonical made the decision for The Banshee Project, and announced the following proposal (from Gabriel Burt's blog post):

  • Banshee's Amazon store will remain enabled, with Canonical taking a 75% cut of all affiliate revenue; 25% on Ubuntu will now go to the GNOME Foundation.
  • The Ubuntu One store for Banshee will remain enabled by default, but now Canonical will donate 25% of its revenue to GNOME. They will now do the same for Rhythmbox.

Now, I'm not sure what Canonical makes from the U1 Store, nor do I know what The Banshee Project makes from their Amazon affiliate code. However, what is clear to me is that Canonical was not happy leaving money on the table regarding the Amazon MP3 store, and decided that the 75% cut of Amazon MP3 sales was too tempting to leave alone.

Whatever good intentions Canonical felt it was making with putting it's own 25% of it's own music store revenue to the GNOME Foundation, it still came across as a supreme dick move. It also sends the following message:

Canonical will override the will of a community when the revenue of Canonical is involved.

Whether that statement is 100% true or not, that's the message that I got from these negotiations: Canonical will override the will of a community when the revenue of Canonical is involved.

Let's pretend that I have a popular computer store, "Craig's Computer Emporium", and let's say that during the Christmas season I call up the Salvation Army and ask them to put a bell ringer in front of the store (hey, it classes up the joint, and my customers asked me for it, so I'm doing the will of my customers). But, I also run my own charity ("Craig's Really Excellent Enclave of Penguin Yodelers", or "CREEPY"), and those Penguin Yodelers really need the money as much as the Salvation Army does. So, I head on out of my Computer Emporium, and ask the Salvation Army if they'd give me all of the money that they've collected. 75% will go to CREEPY, and they can have the 25%. Hey, it's a huge win for the Salvation Army, because I get a lot of traffic to my store, and the Penguin Yodelers will get the money so they can keep yodeling to those poor poor deprived yodeler-less penguins.

Of course this is a ridiculous example (I'm pretty sure penguins don't approve of yodeling), but it does bring up a few points:

  1. Redirecting anyone's charitable donation comes across as a supremely dick move, no matter if your intentions are pure.
  2. Skimming 75% off of someone else's charitable efforts for your own purposes (charitable or otherwise) comes across as a supremely dick move.
  3. Claiming that you're providing more traffic because of popularity, so it will all balance out in the end, can be construed as a supremely dick move.

Canonical has sent the wrong message to The Banshee Project, and the community at large with this decision. I desperately want to believe that Canonical is NOT a company full of money-grubbing individuals that use the community to fulfill their own aims, and I hope that a more equitable and amicable solution can be made despite the overtures we've already seen. Ubuntu, for all of it's warts, is a strong and reasonable community, and I believe that we can come to a more agreeable solution than what I've seen thus far.

Canonical, please let The Banshee Project decide what they want to do with their affiliate code. That money is not yours. It is in your best interest to let them, as a community, decide if Canonical is an organization they want to support. It is the spirit of community that you allow Banshee to support the GNOME Foundation as they have in the past, despite the competition it may bring. I would hope that we wouldn't repeat the sins of other desktop manufacturers in not allowing competition on the desktop.

To the Banshee Project: Canonical has made a mistake in forcing you to choose how to be charitable. As a member of the community, I'm disappointed in how this has turned out, and I hope that a more equitable decision can be made.

To the community: Canonical is trying hard as a business to be fair, but they make mistakes. It is up to us to let them know that they've made a mistake, but it is also up to us to forgive them when they admit that they have made a mistake, and support them. Canonical needs to make money to survive and I want to support them in any way that I can.

That said, I still prefer using the U1 Store for my music purchases over the Amazon store, because the technology for delivery is superior and more lenient than Amazon's MP3 store. It's really neat. You should try it.