The developers of Linux Mint have altered the source code of the Banshee music player application to redirect all affiliate revenue gained from sales in the Amazon MP3 store to go to the developers of Linux Mint, raising the old argument: who should manage revenue from free software, upstream or downstream?
Now, before this turns into a crisis of epic proportions, let's be very, very clear: in November 2011, the revenue collected from MP3 sales in Banshee netted Linux Mint a grand total of $3.41, according to Linux Mint founder and project leader Clement Lefebvre.
So, we are not talking about a lot of money here. The discussion, for all intents and purposes, is purely a philosophical one: should Linux Mint divert income originally intended for the GNOME Foundation?
Banshee's source code includes a reference code for Banshee's affiliate status with Amazon. When Banshee users buy an MP3 song from Amazon's store, Banshee is supposed to get a cut as an affiliate, which it then sends to the GNOME Foundation.
In February of 2011, Canonical caught all manner of hullaballoo when it opted to alter that code so it would get 75 percent of the affiliate sales from Banshee MP3 purchases. At the time, Canonical was concerned that Banshee's sales would cut into the its own Ubuntu One music store sales. Eventually it was worked out that Banshee would disable the Amazon store by default and leave the affiliate code as is (100% to GNOME).
Lefebvre's reasons seem to be related to that earlier incident in February, because it's important to remember just exactly where the upstream is for Linux Mint. Here is Lefebvre's response to concerns that Linux Mint deliberately hid the change by failing to mention this part of the patch in its changelog.
"Now, let's explain why the patch and the changelog don't say the same thing. The 'upstream' component of our repositories is for packages we take from Ubuntu and modify for Linux Mint. This particular package comes with a patch which changes the Banshee URL with a Canonical URL. What we're doing, in comparison to upstream (which for us means Ubuntu), is to modify this patch by replacing the Canonical URL with our own. So of course, in the end, the new patch still modifies the Banshee URL, but our change was to change the patch which itself changes that URL… if that makes sense. So, that's why you see 'Changed redirect URL Ubuntu's Amazon store' in the changelog, because that's exactly what we did."
For the amount of money we're talking about, raising a big fuss seems wasteful. But even though Linux Mint is two steps downstream from Banshee, it seems that Canonical's precedent to change the affiliate code has been pushed to Ubuntu's downstream users.
The question is, is this ultimately ethical? Under the terms of the software license, it absolutely is. As a matter of community relations? Perhaps not as much. Lefebvre doesn't say whether he spoke to the Banshee team, and indeed points to what he believed is a broken link to Amazon's affiliate page (it's actually not broken, it only works from Banshee) as one reason why he did not feel Banshee even cared.
When another member of the forum pointed out his error, Lefebvre replied, "Canonical is not in a position to split the revenue generated by Mint users at 75% Canonical-25% Banshee. This is a decision that belongs to us. $3.41 is probably not worth splitting, tracking or even talking about, but if Banshee are interested in a share revenue with us we'll give them more than 25%, just to make that point."
Given the dollar amounts, Banshee may indeed pass on the split. But did the Linux Mint team do the right thing by appropriating the affiliate revenue for themselves?
It's a question that needs to be ultimately resolved, for the time when there's real money involved.
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