The Kerfuffle

Today Jono, as well as Gabriel, announced that the new deal for the Banshee developers regarding the referral money would be a 75/25 split. To show good faith, Canonical will also be donating 25 percent of the proceeds from the UbuntuOne Music Store. As could be predicted, there was a lot of commentary about the relative merits of this outcome. Here are my thoughts on those comments.

A choice withdrawn
First, Gabriel’s blog post. As you can read from the language Gabriel uses, this was a one-sided decision where Canonical withdrew their previous offer. Reminder: that was where they gave the Banshee maintainers a choice between on by default and a 75/25 split and a not on by default and 100% GNOME Foundation. The maintainers choose the second. Some may say “but Canonical is now offering 25% of U1 Music Store revenue, which is more than they offered before.” Yes, that is true, but the Banshee maintainers specifically did not choose a revenue sharing deal. To then respond with a statement that their previous offer was a “mistake” and that this new plan devised by Canonical is the way they are going to go, nevermind the decision previously made, is bad form.

Money supports FLOSS development
This next part surprised me. And I have to preface this with that I respect [openly ;)] the work that Jono does for the Ubuntu community. The Ubuntu community is lucky it has such a devoted person working on their behalf. I’ve always been impressed with the quality of team leadership/management I have seen from Jono. But, his comments on Twitter following this announcement did not reflect the Jono I know.

Jef Spaleta asked if Jono could see the difference between legal and ethical (we all know it is permitted by Banshee’s license to change the source code, and thus the referral code, but ethics are separate from legalness). Jono responded with “my view is that it is all going to FLOSS, so it is fine.” Sandy Armstrong correctly pointed out that Canonical does not only do FLOSS development. They also produce Landscape and UbuntuOne, where the bulk of the code (my guess), the server/web interface portion, is proprietary. Jono ignored his previous statement and responded with “that’s why I said ‘most.’” Sandy correctly pointed out that he indeed said “all.”

Yes, that whole previous paragraph of “he said/she said” was only to point out, in exruciating detail, that Jono slipped up on his wording in a tweet – something I’m sure none of us have ever done. But this is a very delicate matter and should be handle accordingly.

So, it was especially disappointing to see that slip-up followed by another sloppy post: If Canonical put 100% of the money into non-Free software then he’d see the problem, suggesting that anything less that 100% is just fine.

Then his last comment (on Twitter) about the issue for the day suggested that if the Banshee maintainers didn’t want their referral code to be changed they should have licensed their app that way. This is either a suggestion to create a non-Free software license or a statement that “as long as it is legal it should be OK with everyone.” The first is just ridiculous. And the second exemplifies the world where ethics do not enter a decision making process. Something can be both legal and unethical.

(I’m making this a separate section because I want to bring attention to the idea, and I hope it happens.) One of the suggestions by Jef was to open up the financials of Canonical to prove where the money is going. I’m a huge fan in open book financials for companies I support. The Wikimedia Foundation does this, along with Creative Commons (PDF). They are non-profits in the US and make their 990 tax fillings public. Bradley Kuhn has even started a gitorious project collection those fillings for various FLOSS non-profits.

Aaron Bockover, another Banshee maintainer, wrote an open letter to Canonical suggesting another route. Basically, let the server handle the revenue sharing/affiliate code managing. This not only allows a more transparent audit trail but also has many technical benefits. I’ll let you read them on his post. They are very sound and well thought out.

The decision process
This kerfuffle brings one very important part of the Ubuntu project to the fore: the governance and decision making process. Reminder, the decision to switch the default media player from Rhythmbox to Banshee was a community decision at an Ubuntu Developer Summit. This was a community-led decision. This is in stark contrast to some other decisions in the Ubuntu project that are not made by the community, an example of which is, of course, this revenue sharing decision, and another is the changes made by the design team, Ayatana.

Because of today’s developments, I decided to relisten to this interview with Phillip Schmidt (of P2PU) and Mako on my walk home from work. The interview was about, generally, governance in Free and Open projects. Obviously, much of the interivew focuses on Debian and Ubuntu governance. I HIGHLY recommend listening to that interview if you are at all interested in the governance structue of Ubuntu, Debian, Wikipedia, etc. Mako’s insights into those communities, especially Ubuntu’s, is greatly worthwhile. One thing of note is the way decisions are made regarding Ubuntu. Mako brings up the point about recent changes made by the Ayatana team and how they are presented to both the community (including the Community Council) as done deals with recommendations to “keep people on message” if they disagree with the changes.

I wanted to bring this governance aspect up because I think it really gets to the core of the issue for me. This decision was made by people not accountable to the community. The relative merits of an organization running a FLOSS project that has people and decisions that are not accountable to the community is up for debate, but not here. I’m just noting it and saying that it is something to be extremely aware of. The conclusion you make about its morality is your own. I might write more on it later, but this post is already getting to be too long.

My Opinion
My opinion is simple: This decision was made in a very bad way. No community involvement without any course for a real dialog. It disappointed me.

It reminds me, all too clearly, of the decision to name the file sync cloud service UbuntuOne instead of CanonicalOne (or similar). Some of you might remember the intense debate that happened on the topic. I watched the Community Council meeting where Mako and others talked with Mark about not only the name but also the issue that UbuntuOne was, and is, not a Free Network Service. I remember the conversation not being a true discussion with open minds. The decision had been made by Canonical people (including sabdfl) and no amount of discourse from the Council could change that. It disappointed me.

In addition, the communication of this decision was made poorly. Things could have been said better on Twitter. Things could have been more openly discussed on mailing lists. But none of those open channels of communication were used effectilvely (if at all). That disappointed me.

So I guess that’s my opinion of the matter: I’m disappointed.

This post has agonized me the entire time I wrote it. I don’t like these posts, but I feel they need to be written from time to time. I don’t mean to offend anyone, I only mean to share my thoughts on an important issue. I could have written more, because this kerfuffle brought up some problems that will need to be solved to prevent future kerfuffles. I didn’t write more because those issues deserve their own post and it is getting late.

flattr this!


  1. I’m surprised by how few people even bring up that Ubuntu One isn’t federated or open-source! Or a free network service, as you put it.

    Between this, that, and the contributor agreement, I almost wonder if Canonical’s endgame isn’t to get bought out and transfer Unity to their purchaser, or something. Isn’t that how Mark’s last startup turned out? And I don’t recall Canonical’s being that wildly profitable last I checked.

  2. Greg,
    I completely agree with your view, the Ubuntu project management has been changing, some of those changes have been poorly communicated to the community. As a result there is an increasing number of discussions about ethics and Free Software values.

    This is not an issue of technical changes, nor Canonical’s business model per si. We need to understand how are business reasons influencing Ubuntu’s community governance, more specifically communication and decision making.

  3. I find the argument that “but ethics are separate from legalness” a perplexing one because the main point of free and open licences is to legally allow for the ethical/moral right of the recipient of code to do whatever they like with it.

    The licences are of course legal, but they are a legal means to enforce an ethical end. Canonical does not just have the legal right to modify the code, it is a moral right granted to them in a legal fashion.

    It seems rather strange to me to grant people the right to do whatever they want and then be upset if they do something. What is so special about these few lines of code that makes changing them a no no?

    The only thing I can think of is that it involves money, but the very existence of commercial distributions requires them to obtain, in one way or another, money by providing things that are far from their own work alone.

    Should Red Hat not be allowed to charge money for PostgreSQL support because doing so could be considered to interfere with the more involved PostgreSQL companies revenue streams?

    Where is the line? What’s so special here that warrants reneging on the moral right granted by the licence?

  4. Paul:

    Sometimes legal solutions aren’t the best solutions. You’re right in pointing out that free software licenses are a legal solution to an ethical problem, but staying within legal solutions doesn’t mean you’re doing the right thing. (In fact, it’s still legal to develop proprietary software, but plenty of people in the free software movement think that’s wrong.) One good example of this: I can say all sorts of hurtful things to people without any good reason that are not slanderous, just painful, and that’s probably my right to free speech. But it does make me a jerk if I do so. Luckily there are some other enforcements that discourage that kind of behavior: social enforcements. I live in a society, and part of being in that society I realize it’s not a good idea to be a jerk (and that for simply moral reasons, I don’t *want* to be a jerk).

    Setting up the community council to discuss these kinds of things adds a layer of governance and direction to a project like Ubuntu, Debian, Fedora, or any other heavily community involved distribution. It also encourages valuable members of the community to stick around, and feel like their activities are valuable. Most people who are volunteers on distro work do it because they really believe in it. That work is really needed, and the direction they believe in should be set and helped to be followed by the council.

    There was a moral issue here: the banshee project set up a solution to help keep the Gnome Foundation, a nonprofit, well funded. Redirecting those funds may have been legally okay, but hurtful to members of the community who are deeply involved in the distribution. There may have been another solution, and maybe the community council could have been better involved there, but that didn’t happen, and that’s why people are upset.

  5. I agree with you that Canonical didn’t manage this delicate issue as good as it should have. There were some mistakes made that only worsened an already sensitive case.

    However, regarding your comments about community governance I would like to say a few words. Compromise, most specifically the ‘polder model'[1] has worked very well in, for example, the case of the Netherlands. The country has flourished because of the tendency to make sure most people can live with the agreement. The down-side of this is that we haven’t exactly become a very sexy, flexible country. Some people would even consider us to be boring.

    An operating system should be sexy, swift to respond to changes and most certainly not boring, if it wants to attract users. Furthermore, what works in the governance of a country doesn’t have to work at a different scale. We’re not working with opinions about social issues, but with decisions that can be made on the basis of ratio, knowledge. Building software is a trade. Not everyone has something useful to say, and people whose job it is to build an operating system will generally are better suited to make decisions than amateurs.


  6. @Sense:
    That’s actually something I wanted to bring up but decided not to because of length concerns. So, thank you!

    You’re exactly right that consensus-based decision making is slow and sometimes boring. Mako brought this up in his interview with Phillip: Debian’s governance/policies allow it to scale extremely well laterally. However, it can’t do certain vertical integrations that are sometimes needed. Things like a unified experience. The things that companies like Apple are known for. Apple can do it efficiently because they write all of the code and can enforce strict rules on their third-party developers.

    That is actually where the Ubuntu governance/decision making process adds on top of Debians: We have a group not accountable to anyone but Mark that works on the design of Ubuntu. This allows them to make big changes and make them quickly; something Debian Developers would have a hard time accomplishing. This system obviously allows great things to happen.

    So, we get the benefit of the broad consensus based world of Debian plus the more hierarchical structure of Ubuntu. Ideally, this gives us the best of both worlds.

    I whole-heartedly recommend you, and others, listen to that interview with Mako. He makes some great points that I think everyone active in the Ubuntu community needs hear.

  7. […] 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 […]

  8. I’m actually perplexed by this debate. Of the how many ever companies that make money leveraging open source, Canonical is on the short list for actually giving back. Canonical employs people passionate about open source that might otherwise get stuck elsewhere. But at the end of the day Ubuntu is a business that has bills to pay. Just because Mark has reserves of money doesn’t mean he’s set out to build charity case.

    Well I don’t have numbers of course, I’m sure that 1000s of companies use open source to make money and the developers or the organizations they support never see a dime. In the real world, and this makes me laugh thinking about it, if I were to go into the managers offices of some of the jobs I’ve had and ask that even 10% of the profit we made leveraging open source went to the GNOME foundation, I doubt they would even know how to respond well keeping a straight face.

    I simply don’t see how Canonical is beholden to donate anything at all. The fact that they are shows that they are trying to do the right thing.

  9. This:

    “This decision was made by people not accountable to the community. The relative merits of an organization running a FLOSS project that has people and decisions that are not accountable to the community is up for debate, but not here. I’m just noting it and saying that it is something to be extremely aware of.”

    This needs to stay atop the brains of folks who default to the position that they have a say in all things Ubuntu.

    Canonical puts itself in a really hard position when they encourage feelings of ownership among users, developers and supporters of Ubuntu. I don’t really have a problem with the technical changes that happened with Banshee, but I do think the mechanics have convinced me that Canonical don’t have a good communications plan.

    First, Jono has put himself in a position where he is personally responding via microblog to tons of garbage attacks. I empathize with him – no human has the patience to deal with that stuff and not get terse/sloppy sometimes. I realize that he and others probably think that this ‘direct line’ is super awesome, but I can never tell whether Jono is speaking as himself or as Canonical Employee/Community Manager. This has to be clarified, and probably by putting permanently different faces on these two different channels.

    Second, whether or not Canonical opens its finances, it should make honest, forward looking declarations to the community about revenue plans. I don’t follow the planet closely (thank God), so I may miss some things, but I think a huge source of consternation is that we don’t know what Canonical has planned, or even an idea of overall direction. Does Canonical even have a revenue strategy? If we knew that ahead of time, we’d be in a better position to make *ethical* conclusions about Canonical and Ubuntu. It seems like whenever something like this happens, people worry about “what Canonical will pull next”. I say they should just up and tell us what’s next.

  10. @Adam:

    I really liked what you said here:

    I think a huge source of consternation is that we don’t know what Canonical has planned, or even an idea of overall direction. Does Canonical even have a revenue strategy? If we knew that ahead of time, we’d be in a better position to make *ethical* conclusions about Canonical and Ubuntu. It seems like whenever something like this happens, people worry about “what Canonical will pull next”. I say they should just up and tell us what’s next.

    Thank you.

  11. Interesting post, Greg.

    Let me be clear in my perspective (and this is my personal perspective).

    This is how I see this Banshee issue:

    * Canonical originally made and offer and when the offer was declined, Canonical decided to go ahead and turn on the store anyway. I agree that this is unprofessional and sends out a bad message – it was a mistake made by Cristian, which he has apologized for to the Banshee team in an email which I published yesterday at
    * Outside of that issue, there is the question of whether it is OK for Canonical to take 75% of the sales of songs in Amazon and give 25% back to the GNOME Foundation. I don’t see this as a problem for a few reasons – (a) I see Canonical investing heavily in bringing Free Software to the masses, so I am confident that the money will be invested back in Ubuntu (b) there is still a contribution being made to the GNOME Foundation (which with the volume of sales, I suspect will generate some nice revenue for them) (c) it gives choice to Banshee users in Ubuntu.

    I am not saying there is not a better deal out there – I think 50/50 would be awesome – but I personally see that most of the revenue would go back to Free Software which is the core of my requirements when I read the issue.

    Sure, Canonical does invest in some non-free elements, and I wish we didn’t, but I am confident that the level of revenue we are talking about would be put right back into Free Software.

    Apologies if I was unclear in my tweets – there was a lot going on yesterday. :-)

  12. @Jono:

    Thanks for your thoughts here, I really appreciate it. And I totally understand how you were bombarded yesterday. I thank you for trying to engage where people engage you.

    Do you have any thoughts on the issue of decision making/governance and how they can be more clearly communicated with the community? I think Adam’s comment above nicely explains that issue and he brought up a good suggestion.

  13. Greg – thanks. I think we need a clear policy outlining revenue sharing. I think this would be a useful topic for discussion at UDS.

  14. Christopher:
    My point is not that legal necessarily equals moral.
    My point is that the right to modify as you see fit is the _precise_ reason that these licences exist. It is not some incidental legal artifact of the licence it is the main intent of the licence.

    To complain when someone uses the moral right that you have explicitly and intentionally granted them seems, well, immoral!

    If the Banshee developers didn’t want people to exploit the code for their own commercial ends then they should have chosen a licence (perhaps just for the plugin) that denies commercial derivatives.

    How can someone release under a Free or Open software licence and then turn round and say “but don’t change that” with a straight face?

  15. Regarding the “transparency” section above:

    I don’t think 990s count as “open books”, not even close. Plenty of interesting information to be gleaned from them, but it’s all legally mandated and typically a year old by time of public availability. is one attempt to do a bit more.

  16. Tangentially related to this kerfluffle (about which I have zero insight, eg into the decision process), I’d like to note that resources going to distributors rather than application developers may well be a good thing. Getting free software media players to more users is a much bigger challenge than adding more features to free software media players. Generally the usefulness and competitiveness of free software is horribly crippled by lack of users, lack of network effects. The only thing better than resources flowing to distros is resources flowing to hardware vendors that get free software preinstalled into the hands of users. If the money is significant and usability not impacted, I hope that System76 and ZaReason overwrite Canonical’s referrer code with their own!

  17. […] The Kerfuffle Today Jono, as well as Gabriel, announced that the new deal for the Banshee developers regarding the referral money would be a 75/25 split. To show good faith, Canonical will also be donating 25 percent of the proceeds from the UbuntuOne Music Store. As could be predicted, there was a lot of commentary about the relative merits of this outcome. Here are my thoughts on those comments. Continua a leggere… […]

  18. […] Consilience — The Kerfuffle (tags: Ubuntu Canonical Banshee) […]

  19. @Mike:

    You are completely correct re: the 990s. I guess I was just reaching for an example there (and I appreciated the work bkuhn has done).

    Re: Money to distributions vs application developers: I see your point and agree. Though, to be fair, the money was going towards the development of a desktop environment not just one application. Regardless, you may very well be correct that the return on each dollar invested is higher when used to promote/better a distro than a single application/desktop environment. Mindshare and network effects are important things.

    And I can only smile at your suggestion of System76/ZaReason overwriting the referrer codes with their own :)

  20. Disclaimer: Not really a fan of Canonical this days.
    That said I think that it was a dick move for them to [ force ] enable the amazon MP3 store even after the banshee team had turned down their terms. What was the point of them talking in the first place?
    Weather or not 75/25 split is moral is besides the point, forcing the issue is what got to me.

  21. […] on Jono Bacon’s blog.  This was soon followed by posts questioning how the decision and announcements were handled. Sense Hofstede followed up with an excellent post discussing the value of Ubuntu as […]

  22. […] concerns surrounding the Ubuntu and Banshee profit-sharing “kerfuffle”, as Greg puts it here.  Craig Maloney (aka snap-l) responds here.  Mark Shuttleworth responds to everyone here.  Also, […]

  23. […] […]

  24. […] Finally, we wrap up with some talk of govenance, and what he meant in his blog post about the Banshee/Canonical kerfuffle […]

Post a comment.

View Mobile Site