Much has been said lately about the revenue sharing decision made by Canonical in regards to the Banshee music store sales, starting with the announcement 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 a distribution channel complimenting the value of Banshee as a product.
What I haven’t seen discussed, and what I would like to bring up, is this often cited but never quite defined notion of the moral or ethical restrictions on the use of FLOSS.
The legal question
By releasing Banshee under the terms of the
GPL MIT license (as was pointed out to me in the comments), it’s developers have given Canonical and anybody else the legal ability to change it however they want. Canonical would have been legally within their rights to keep 100% of all Amazon sales commission. I haven’t seen anybody arguing otherwise, even the detractors of the decision make it clear that the problem is not a legal one, but a moral and ethical one. Discussions about the legal (copyright/trademark/etc) options and implications I’m going to leave for other posts. I mention this only to get it out of the way so we can focus entirely on the moral question.
The moral question
The main thrust of the moral argument seems to be this: “The Banshee authors did the work of writing the extension, so they have a right to decide where the proceeds go”. Here the “right” is not a legal one like copyright, but a moral one: The right to benefit from your labor. This is arguably a universal moral, it is the basis of capitalism itself, and codified even in the fables we tell our children. I don’t think anybody can argue against this basic truth. Indeed, neither Canonical nor anybody else is arguing against it, but rather arguing that the work they put into the integration of Banshee as the default in Ubuntu has morally entitled them to a share of the proceeds equal to the value they contribute.
Is FLOSS morally open?
One of the most important tenants of FLOSS is having the ability to modify something to your own desire, and the freedom to make that available to others. However, this sometimes means making modifications that the original author doesn’t like, doesn’t want, or even finds contrary to their own intentions. Such is the current case with Banshee, but it’s not the first time the issue has been faced by Canonical. They have been criticized for making changes to Gnome that the Gnome developers didn’t want, following Ayatana’s design choices rather than Gnome’s, and now evolving into the development of Unity as an alternative to Gnome Shell.
They have also faced the reverse of this argument by keeping the Ubuntu One server code closed, rather than making it available to others to use and profit from. Launchpad faced the same criticism before its source was opened. Interestingly, Debian faced the opposite of this with the Firefox/Iceweasel situation, where Mozilla felt they had the moral right, but not the legal right, to make the changes they did and still use the trademark Firefox.
This is a problem faced by all free societies, not just with regards to software. Here in the United States our constitution protects most forms of speech, but we still have a tendency to want to prevent the exercise of that freedom when we find the speech disagreeable or contrary to our own feelings or benefits. But to be a truly free society, we have to learn to not only accept the rights of others to make such speeches, but to still be happy with the fact that they are able to do so.
The question that the open source community faces, then, is whether we should be accepting of down-stream changes to our code, even when they are not changes we like. Should we make our code open to changes, but keep our social acceptance of those changes closed, or should we always take delight in the use of our code to the benefit of someone else? The concept of free and open source software has already changed the way we think about copyright and intellectual property, our legal ownership, but it seems we haven’t yet changed the way we think about the moral ownership of our code.
I believe that in order to be true to our belief in the principles of FLOSS, we must not only accept changes to our code that run counter to our intentions, but that we must welcome them. If we are to hold that freedom benefits everybody, then we should celebrate everybody’s exercise of it, even when we disagree with their application of it. It’s no easy thing to say to the Banshee developers that they should be happy that Canonical is taking 75% off the top what could have gone to them. I certainly don’t expect them to agree with the decision. But if they value the freedom of their code then I do expect them, and the rest of the FLOSS community, to be happy that their work is being used to meet someone’s desires, even if that way doesn’t meet their own.