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Banshee, Canonical and how to earn an honest living in open source

openSUSE community manager, Jos Poortvliet, discusses Canonical's heavy handed tactics over Banshee referrals, and wonders how an openSUSE Foundation might make an honest living in open source...

This article is due to appear in issue 98 of Linux User & Developer magazine.

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Joe “Zonker” Brockmeier wrote an interesting article on Open Source Report about the Banshee Amazon store in Ubuntu 11.04. To quickly summarize the situation, Banshee will be the new default music player in Ubuntu. Let me say up front, as a disclaimer: Banshee is to a large extent being developed by my employer, Novell. Banshee has support for the Amazon music store and includes a referral code in there, as you’d expect. The benefits of this amount to around $10,000 per year right now, which goes to the GNOME Foundation. Sadly, Canonical recently visited the Banshee mailing list and told them the Amazon store had to go. It could stay, they said, but only if Banshee gave 75% of the earnings to Canonical instead of GNOME. The Banshee developers graciously declined. Now Banshee (in Ubuntu at least) will have Ubuntu One as default music store and users will have to enable Amazon by themselves.

Like Joe, I have no problem with Canonical trying to make money on Ubuntu One. I do have an issue with them taking it away from the projects who develop the code they ship to their customers, though. It might have been more reasonable if Canonical would have been looking for an even split – even Apple doesn’t take more than a 30% cut from people who ship applications through their App Store. But Banshee isn’t the only project that Canonical cuts in on. The company also replaces the Firefox affiliate ID with its own. I wonder how people would feel if Microsoft or Apple replaced the affiliate code in Firefox in their next OS update…

Canonical has to make money, granted, but I just hope they can find better ways of doing that over taking it from the non-profits, which produce the code they ship. There is plenty of documentation on the web on how companies can generate revenue out of Open Source. Meanwhile, however, this issue did make me think about a rather different use case – openSUSE. We are in the process of setting up a Foundation. Once created, this Foundation will be on the lookout for funding. Obviously my employer will support it, but he Foundation will also want to explore other ways of generating income, and I can’t find much information on how Free Software non-profits can generate it.

Individual donations and merchandising don’t seem hugely profitable in other communities – it brings in a bit of money but not enough to sustain many expenses. I’ve been thinking about the individual sponsorship program – communities like openSUSE, KDE and GNOME have lots of people who used to be active members, but have since moved on. The skills they learned while active surely still help them every day and maybe they even got a job because of their activities. So why not set up an alumni program and target them to give a small share of their income to the community? Organize something for them – a yearly reunion, a special alumni meeting at a yearly conference, some way to share what they have learned since leaving openSUSE…

On the web you do find references about certification programs and trademark lending. Sometimes companies sell services or products around openSUSE and they’re often able to pay for the privilege of using the openSUSE brand. How much revenue this could bring in, though, is tricky to calculate. Something else which works, outside of various donation schemes and affiliate codes, are targeted fundraisers. You can’t do that too often, but the GNOME Foundation, Amarok and Krita communities frequently do such fundraisers.

So maybe openSUSE will simply have to rely on these mentioned ways of making money. Don’t forget about specific, targeted fundraisers for specific causes, but stay reasonable. An e.V. or Foundation should protect, support, mediate and communicate. It doesn’t need to employ hundreds of developers, marketeers or consultants. That is for the other, commercial parties in the ecosystem…

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