If you write papers on a regular basis, you’ll find it worthwhile to keep track of sources you might cite. When I was in grad school, I manually edited a BibTeX file to keep track of the references for my dissertation and other papers. Nowadays there are easier to use, Web-aware tools that let you automatically import citations as you do your research, organize, edit, and annotate them, and then include appropriate ones in your paper’s bibliography. One of the first products of this type was EndNote, a Mac and Windows application marketed by Thomson Reuters. It’s still widely used, but it’s hardly alone in this field. Also popular among scholars is the web-based RefWorks, marketed by ProQuest. And a new free entry, the open-source browser-plugin-based Zotero from George Mason University, is gaining popularity.
I don’t currently use any of these tools, but have lately been thinking about adopting one. And just now one of them, Zotero, got an unusual bit of marketing that makes me think it’s worth a try: its makers have just been sued for $10 million by Thomson Reuters, marketers of EndNote.
The text of the complaint filed in Virginia court is interesting both for what it says and what it doesn’t say. Thomson isn’t claiming that Zotero violated their copyrights or stole their trade secrets; they’re claiming rather that GMU violated the license of the software. The violation? Reverse-engineering the proprietary file format used by EndNote for style files, and allowing Zotero uses to import EndNote-formatted style files into Zotero and export them into an open format.
Style files specify how bibliographic references should be formatted for different publishers. They allow you to automatically format the same citation in different ways depending on, say, whether you’re writing for Urban Studies or the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine. The citation formats are specified by the publishers, not the bibliographic software developers; the style files should simply be an encoding of the publisher’s guidelines in a machine-actionable format.
Thomson claims that the ability to read these publisher guidelines in their proprietary format is a grave threat to EndNote. As they put it in their complaint:
GMU is willfully and intentionally destroying Thomson’s customer base for the EndNote Software […] by allowing and encouraging users of Zotero to freely convert the EndNote Software’s proprietary .ens style files into open source Zotero .csl style files and further distributing such converted files to others.
(I should note that the facts of this allegation are in question. GMU has yet to make an official statement on the claims of the suit, but Peter Murray claims that the Zotero code simply reads and interprets .ens files (which can be created either by Thomson or by EndNote users), and does not export them into other formats.)
Does Thomson have a legal case? That may depend on the language of the license and its enforceability. (On the one hand, Virginia is one of two states that passed UCITA, a law that gives software vendors wide leeway in dictating and enforcing software license terms. On the other hand, the license as quoted prohibits “reverse engineering [the] Software”, and the only reverse engineering I’ve seen has been on the file formats the EndNote software produces, not the software itself.) Folks interested in commentary from legal experts might find these posts of interest.
Thomson’s actions suggest serious weakness of its marketing case, at any rate. As a potential customer, I look for organizations that provide the best software and services for what I need to do, and that empower me to get my work done in the way I see fit. I’m willing to pay a fair price for this software and service, and to respect developer’s copyrights, but I in turn want value for money, and respect for the customer’s needs.
If EndNote provides service and value that’s superior to its competitors, that should be enough to retain and grow its customer base. It shouldn’t need to try to lock the data the software outputs in proprietary formats, to impose license terms on its customers to keep them opaque, or to sue its customers when they nonetheless figure out how to decode them. Whatever their internal motivation, Thomson’s actions appear from the outside to be driven more by fear of competition than recovery of ill-gotten gains.
For users of Zotero, the suit is at worst an inconvenience. Even if the ability to read .ens files is removed from Zotero, users can simply create and share their own style files. (There’s some sweat of the brow involved, but much less than $10 million worth.) Zotero’s style repository has already grown to include styles for over 1100 journals, according to the Zotero blog, and instructions are available for anyone who wants to create and contribute additional styles. And if George Mason is forced or intimidated into stopping development of Zotero, anyone else is welcome to pick up where George Mason left off, thanks to Zotero’s open source license. (But if you want to develop without risking this kind of suit from Thomson, you might want to first make sure you’re not an EndNote customer when you start your work.)
Thomson is hardly the only software company to make its customers deal with proprietary formats, constrictive software licenses, and threats of legal action for disobeying license terms. One of the attractions of using free (“as in freedom“) software is not having to work under these burdens. But companies that sell software and services don’t necessarily have to impose them either. Copyright and trademark laws already prohibit users from misappropriating software and commercial brands. Lots of products do quite well in the marketplace with open formats.
So if you’re considering buying software or services from someone, and they use their own proprietary formats, or say that using their product requires assent to a complicated, onerous license agreement, you might want to ask yourself: “What are they afraid of?” Perhaps you might want to ask them as well.