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Thomson Reuters Sues Over Open-Source Endnote-Alike Zotero 181

Posted by timothy
from the gmu-also-home-of-econtalk dept.
Noksagt writes "Thomson Reuters, the owner of the Endnote reference management software, has filed a $10 million lawsuit and a request for injunction against the Commonwealth of Virginia. Virginia's George Mason University develops Zotero, a free and open source plugin to Mozilla Firefox that researchers may use to manage citations. Thomson alleges that GMU's Center for History and New Media reverse engineered Endnote and that the beta version of Zotero can convert (in violation of the Endnote EULA) the proprietary style files that are used by Endnote to format citations into the open CSL file format."
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Thomson Reuters Sues Over Open-Source Endnote-Alike Zotero

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  • by Elektroschock (659467) on Saturday September 27, 2008 @07:01PM (#25180383)

    Is it possible in the US to use an EULA to prevent third parties to read your proprietary formats?

    Do you think the legislator should better enforce interoperability provisions?

  • by One Louder (595430) on Saturday September 27, 2008 @07:05PM (#25180417)
    Having read the complaint, it doesn't look like Thomson has much in the way of a case - this probably won't get very far.

    They're basically relying on license language that prohibits the reverse-engineering of the program itself - but there's nothing there that prohibits reverse engineering of the file format that it uses.

  • by InspectorxGadget (1230170) on Saturday September 27, 2008 @07:14PM (#25180461)
    Reverse engineering may be prohibited by a license agreement even though it is not protected by the protection generally afforded to trade secrets in the US, where reverse engineering is usually permissible. With that said, though, an interesting but minor issue that popped up in one of the DVD Copy Control Association, Inc. v. Bunner cases is the burden of proof that reverse engineering has actually been carried out by the defendant. In that case, the DVDCCA not only couldn't prove that Bunner (an online distributor of DVDJon's DVDDeCSS) had reverse engineered the software - required to prove the violation of the particular software's EULA - but also couldn't definitively establish that reverse engineering had even occurred. So even if someone reverse engineered Endnote - a fact that can probably be proven by analyzing the source code of Zotero's format convertor - Thomson-Reuters will still have to prove that a Zotero author or distributor subject to the EULA did so.
  • Damages? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by enHatt (1283014) on Saturday September 27, 2008 @07:18PM (#25180493)
    The only ones using Endnote are already connected to a university or the likes which are going to pay for bulk licenses anyway. I could have gotten one without paying where I studied, but I don't use Microsoft Word, nor IE, so it's kind of a moot point. Are they afraid that most academics are going to switch to OpenOffice, Firefox and Zotero? If they are, they should relax: That's not happening for at least 10 years.
  • by DECS (891519) on Saturday September 27, 2008 @07:37PM (#25180609) Homepage Journal

    There are a lot of things that are "not inherently illegal" that become the basis of a civil suit after one enters an agreement not to do it. That's what this case is about, so you can stop shaking the strawman of your populist idealism.

    Additionally, there are plenty of workalike compatibility tools and or independent implementations of a proprietary standard that exist, but could easily be assailed, probably successfully, by patent attacks.

    Microsoft could probably easily shut down Samba if it decided it wanted to (and determined the cost was worth the bad press). Apple created its own lossless codec after determining that supporting FLAC would expose it to liability due the patent attacks. Just because something exists doesn't mean it can be defended successfully under patent assault.

    The Japanese iPhone Failure Myth [roughlydrafted.com]

  • by base3 (539820) on Saturday September 27, 2008 @07:39PM (#25180619)
    . . . remove the "[zotero.org]" /. inserts first:

    Never know what idiotic (or corrupt) judge might grant a preliminary injunction forcing them to remove the source.

  • by dgatwood (11270) on Saturday September 27, 2008 @07:45PM (#25180663) Journal

    More to the point, any file created by a user is inherently the sole property of the user. The only way contract terms prohibiting reverse engineering of file formats would hold up would be if the terms explicitly prohibited giving the file to anyone who is not bound by the contract.

    In the absence of such a clause, as soon as that file leaves your hands into the hands of someone who did not agree to the contract terms, any rights the company has to protect their file format cease to be relevant or enforceable (with the exception of patents).

    In the presence of such a clause, you're going to have a hard time selling your application to anyone with half a brain, and such a clause would almost certainly be thrown out as unconscionable because of the unreasonable burden it would place on the user to verify the license of someone else before giving that person data that the user legitimately created and on which the user holds exclusive copyright.

    Either way, file formats effectively cannot be protected from reverse engineering. As such, this company would have to somehow prove that it was impossible to reverse engineer the file format without reverse engineering the app itself. Speaking as somebody who has reverse engineered file formats before, I can say that any such statement could not possibly be made by an intelligent person without it being perjury....

    So there you go. This suit is frivolous, and I hope the company has to pay a few million in restitution for pain and suffering to the victims of the suit. Such IP fraud deserves nothing less than a huge in-court bitch slap. This is precisely the sort of case that makes me opposed to every aspect of the Pro-IP act.... Yet another case of copyright abuse by a corporation to harm consumers and illegally stifle competition from smaller players.... *sigh*

  • On donations (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Noksagt (69097) on Saturday September 27, 2008 @08:01PM (#25180769) Homepage

    That is fair. And my zealousness hasn't made me write a check to the Commonwealth of Virginia. To be honest, I don't know what VA will do with this case or how the trial will work. VA is being sued simply because GMU is a state university. Will they really have a "blank check" (e.g. as many tax-payer funds that are needed) to defend this with any external counsel and experts that they wish to employ?

  • by Jah-Wren Ryel (80510) on Saturday September 27, 2008 @08:16PM (#25180867)

    No. PDF has always been well, if not fully, documented.
    Somewhere in a box I still have a copy of the first PDF reference manual (along with the postscript red, green and blue books) from back around 1993.

  • by moosesocks (264553) on Saturday September 27, 2008 @09:15PM (#25181249) Homepage

    Of course, the developer of a reference manager would be the type to take the time to adequately explain his argument, and fully annotate his sources :-)

  • by yes it is (1137335) on Saturday September 27, 2008 @09:42PM (#25181391)
    Zotero is the best piece of software I've come across in a long time, and the database schema is particularly nice. I always thought that Thomposon were fools. Now on one side they're having their lunch eaten by google scholar, and on the other side by a variety of free and/or open source bibliographic managers. For any Thomposon execs reading - if you don't stop regarding the users data as your property and start opening up instead, your decline will be much faster than similar proprietary software companies.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday September 27, 2008 @10:11PM (#25181507)

    I'm not a lawyer (I'm also a different AC), but I think "on information and belief" in a complaint means "We think so, or at least we want the court to think so, but we don't really have any evidence yet." Just because the complaint says they reverse engineered it doesn't mean they did.

  • by DigitAl56K (805623) on Saturday September 27, 2008 @10:15PM (#25181533)

    It would be easier for more story submitters to do the same thing in future if comments carried over from submissions to stories, and if you had a reasonable chance to review what the Slashdot editors did to your summary before it went live, or if you even knew in how many hours it might actually go live once it's modded up into a story.

  • Re:fantastic news (Score:4, Insightful)

    by gronofer (838299) on Saturday September 27, 2008 @10:17PM (#25181551)

    Really, what better way to make end users aware of the risks involved when they're using proprietary file formats?

    Sue your own customers because they try to break the lock in? Great plan!

    I'm sure that 'Thomas Reuters' will see their business go through the roof after this :)

    What better way to make anybody, large organization or individual, aware of the risk of open source software development? Why allow resources to be used, perhaps when it's hard to even measure the financial return, when you are opening yourself up to the possibility of multi-million dollar lawsuits, with all of the wasted management time and legal costs that will be incurred even if you fight and win?

    Just saying, I think the legal system as it relates to software is completely broken.

  • by Arrogant-Bastard (141720) on Saturday September 27, 2008 @10:30PM (#25181623)
    Thomson has obviously come to the conclusion that they cannot compete against a superior piece of software -- so rather than admitting this, they are going to try to use their legal thugs to crush it. We have seen this strategy many times before, so it is nothing new. But it is still a pathetic, transparently desperate action deserving only of our contempt.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday September 27, 2008 @11:05PM (#25181797)

    ...the entire university is dropping the EndNote site license as of Nov. 16....and I've never come across a faculty member using it as part of a class.

    You hit every important point.
    The school doesn't need it, no professor I've ever had used it (GMU=Undergrad + masteres), and there are free alternatives now.

        Bascially Endnote is pissed that GMU won't be giving them shit-tons of cash for a product license no one needs. And this is america...so they sue.

  • by Lost Engineer (459920) on Saturday September 27, 2008 @11:59PM (#25182085)

    Don't assume they did this in a clean room fashion. If the engineers did in fact agree to a EULA that said no reverse engineering and then did some reverse engineering, the plaintiff has a case. However, the only possible ruling could be that, in violation of the EULA these users or maybe the whole institution lost right to run the software. If anyone there was still running the software I can see a case for monetary damages.

    A long history of non-enforcement has let horrendously one-sided EULAs slip under the radar. It's a bit much to expect individual software users to read the agreements with a legal mindset, but if this kind of litigation continues perhaps larger institutions will demand more reasonable terms.

  • by Repossessed (1117929) on Sunday September 28, 2008 @03:26AM (#25182773)

    How exactly can an EULA be enforced against someone who doesn't own the software though? The makers of Zotero have no need to own Thompson Rueter's software. Nor is it necessary to have ever used the proprietary software in order to need to open the files. Even if you did once own TR's software, I don't know of any precedent that says you can be held to an EULA of a product you once used but no longer do (A non disclosure agreement type clause might be enforceable this way). And I somehow doubt TR can make a case that a significant portion of Zotero's users use both the TR software and Zotero, the reason to get Zotero is to stop using something else. (This differs from the BNETD case, where a user of BNETD must also have Blizzard software). In this specific case, the EULA seems unenforceable top to bottom.

  • Remember the Goal (Score:3, Insightful)

    by YetAnotherBob (988800) on Sunday September 28, 2008 @11:15AM (#25184603)

    The goal of this type of lawsuit isn't to win, it is to cause financial pain to the developer, in order to kill the competitor. The filer doesn't even care that its' lawsuit fails.

    As long as the legal system provides no real dis-incentives (IE real damages beyond mere legal fees) to the filers, this is seen as just a way of increasing market share by reducing the market.

    Unfortunately, it is a very common practice in the US against new or small companies. A lot of non-profits and Universities will drop all support as a way to avoid the cost of a trial. That's all the filer wants anyway. How do they lose?

  • This is where you have to have "virgin" developers working on the software that is being developed. In other words, the software can only be developed based on specifications and not on actually observing the software in operation... or worse yet reading the de-compiled/disassembled software (and even worse still, proprietary source code) that made the product.

    I do think EULA's that insist upon a "no reverse engineering" clause ought to be found illegal... and on that point I don't know of any firm legal precedent on that topic to suggest that such a clause is enforceable.

    On the other hand, I know of no open source projects (I may be mistaken... but they are few and far between at most) that works hard to separate those who are doing the development work and those who are obtaining the specification via observation and documentation. This may have also been a huge problem the the BNETD case as well. Once you have been "contaminated" with the original software or device, it becomes much harder to prove that you are merely providing interoperability.

  • by Sparr0 (451780) <sparr0@gmail.com> on Sunday September 28, 2008 @09:11PM (#25189167) Homepage Journal

    Faulty analogy. I can (and do) filter comments differently than stories, in many different ways. This debunks the "all the same pairs of eyes" portion of your post. Also, there is a distinction in that by segregating the two, I (as a reader/commenter) am able to post a reply to one or the other in a clean way.

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