Google recently bought Metaweb, a major semantic web company. The value of Metaweb to Google is obvious — as ReadWriteWeb notes, “For the most part,…Google merely serves up links to Web pages; knowing more about what is behind those links could allow the search giant to provide better, more contextual results.” But what does the purchase mean for Metaweb?
Big companies buy small companies all the time. Some entrepreneurs create their start-ups with that goal in mind — get something going and then make a killing when Google buys it. But what do you think of a company when it seems to be doing something different and then is bought by Google?
Metaweb was never a nonprofit, but like Wikipedia, it has had a similar, community-driven vibe. Freebase, its database of entities, is crowd-sourced, open, and free. Google promises that Freebase will remain free, but will the community of people who contribute to Freebase feel the same contributing free labor to a mega-corporation? Is there anything keeping Google from changing its mind in the future about keeping Freebase free? How will the culture of Metaweb change as its technologies evolve within Google?
This isn’t to say that Metaweb’s goals have necessarily been compromised by its purchase by Google. Many people feel like this is the best thing that could have happened to the semantic web.
(Though a few feel, “They didn’t make it big. In fact, this means they failed at their mission of better organizing the world’s information so that rich apps could be built around it. They never got to the APPS part. FAIL!”, and at least one person is concerned Google bought Freebase to kill it.)
Or outside the tech world, when Unilever bought Ben & Jerry’s?
Can a company or organization maintain any high-minded mission to be driven by principles other than profit when they’re bought by a major publicly held corporation?
This isn’t just an abstract question for us. One of the biggest reasons why we chose to be a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization is that we wanted to make sure no one running the Common Data Project would be tempted to sell its greatest asset, the data it hopes to bring together, for short-term profit. As a nonprofit, CDP is not barred from making profits, but no profits can inure to the benefit of any private individual or shareholder. Also as a nonprofit, should CDP dissolve, it cannot merely sell its assets to the highest bidder but must transfer them to another nonprofit organization with a similar mission.
We’re still working on understanding the legal distinctions between IRS-recognized tax-exempt organizations and for-profit businesses. We were surprised when we first found out that Gapminder, a Swedish nonprofit, had been bought by Google. Swedish nonprofit law may differ from U.S. nonprofit law. But it appears Hans Rosling did not stand to make a dime. Google only bought the software and the website, and whatever that was worth went to the organization itself. So in a way, the experience of Gapminder supports the idea that being a nonprofit does make a difference in restricting the profit motives of individuals. Alex Selkirk, as the founder and President of CDP, will never make a windfall through CDP.
The fact that CDP is not profit-driven, and will never be profit-driven makes a difference to us. Does it make a difference to you?