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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 Unending (1164935) on Saturday September 27, 2008 @06:59PM (#25180365)

    Thank you for doing your commenting this way, I hope that more story submitters will try to do the same thing in the future.

  • by dnoyeb (547705) on Saturday September 27, 2008 @07:03PM (#25180397) Homepage Journal

    I was under the impression reverse engineering was not illegal. So why the reverse engineering claim as if this is a legal issue?

  • Same old story (Score:5, Interesting)

    by benntop (449447) <craigo@NOspaM.gmail.com> on Saturday September 27, 2008 @07:11PM (#25180449) Homepage Journal

    EndNote does one thing [citation management] well. The problem is that citation management isn't a difficult thing to accomplish in software. You get some information in one format, store it however you want, and then spit it out according to another format when you are done.

    I am sure that EndNote is a cash cow for Thompson, but the gravy train can't last forever. Other free (Zotero) and non-free (Papers) alternatives are becoming increasingly available - and they are far better than EndNote. Suing the competition won't make that problem go away.

  • by lysergic.acid (845423) on Saturday September 27, 2008 @07:12PM (#25180457) Homepage

    weren't there a bunch of alternative PDF readers long before Adobe made PDF an open format? and same with many disc image applications and proprietary file formats, non-Microsoft word processors and Word documents, Samba's interoperability with NetBIOS, etc.

    this seems like a blatant attempt by a proprietary software vendor to lock Universities and other academic institutions into their software. even if Zotero does allow users to convert from EndNote's style format to other formats, there's nothing inherently illegal about that. if users wants to import their custom styles from EndNote to Zotero, then that's their right.

    this is like suing filesystem developers because they include a copy feature in their software that allows users to potentially make illegal copies of files.

  • by John Hasler (414242) on Saturday September 27, 2008 @07:15PM (#25180469) Homepage

    It should also be noted that as Reuters is claiming only breach of contract this suit will not prevent anyone not affiliated with the defendants from distributing and/or using the software. The project can continue if anyone is interested in continuing it even if GMU loses or gives up. I hope lots of people have downloaded the source.

  • by edremy (36408) on Saturday September 27, 2008 @07:20PM (#25180513) Journal
    I guess I'll start strongly discouraging Endnote usage by all my faculty. The library already makes Refworks available and I've been using Zotero for my class this fall and love it. Endnote is expensive and since we have a pile of individual copies of varying vintage purchased through the years it's annoying to deal with anyway.

    Time to talk to the reference librarians again about scheduling some more faculty training with them...

  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday September 27, 2008 @07:21PM (#25180523)

    I think the plan goes like this...

    1. Provide free advertising for a competing open source solution
    2. Demonstrate to existing customers you have no clue about copyright law or how working with the open source community to expand your data would benifit said customers
    3. ...
    4. Profit?

    Thomson redistribute these files freely, the correct action would be to either make these files redistributable or to add support for the open file format into their product.

  • by thephydes (727739) on Saturday September 27, 2008 @07:24PM (#25180535)
    probably the same as many other users. Nothing like some free advertising. I've downloaded it and will probably start using it. And yes I usually use endnote.
  • by John Hasler (414242) on Saturday September 27, 2008 @07:24PM (#25180537) Homepage

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

    It's not clear what you are asking. Someone who is not a party to a contract is not bound by the terms of that contract. Reuters is claiming that GMU entered into a contract with them as one of the conditions under which Reuters sold GMU copies of Endnotes and then breached that contract. No third parties are involved.

    > Do you think the legislator should better enforce interoperability provisions?

    Again, it is not clear what you are asking. This is a civil lawsuit for breach of contract.

  • by dtaciuch (229229) on Saturday September 27, 2008 @07:42PM (#25180637) Homepage

    I teach at GMU (English); the library here has links to both Zotero and Endnote (with a site license for the latter. I wonder how much that cost?).

    I plan to ask the library to drop the license for Endnote; why pay them to sue us?

    I encourage my research writing classes to use Zotero anyway.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday September 27, 2008 @07:50PM (#25180699)

    (posting anon for job reasons) My company spends over $100,000 per year for Thomson's financial database products. I'm not sure if I want to do business with people like this.

  • by the eric conspiracy (20178) on Saturday September 27, 2008 @08:23PM (#25180925)

    "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."

    This is one of the areas the people espousing the abolishment of patent and copyright laws miss. Patents and copyrights are not the only means that can be used to protect intelelctual property; trade secret and contract law also provide many opportunities to control the flow of information. In general these mechanisms are far worse for the society that relies on them than patent and copyrights; one needs to consider what current laws would be replaced with before advocating that they be discontinued.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday September 27, 2008 @09:00PM (#25181157)

    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?

    First off EULA's are not enforceable.

    Second even if they were their nature makes them useless in this case, even if the program had been reverse engineered to gain information from it the programmers doing said reverse engineering clearly are not the end user for the product, and since they can reverse engineer the program with out installing it its likely they never even saw the EULA, let alone actually agreed to it.

    Thrid, and most importantly copyright law has specific exceptions for format shifting, and interoperability. Even if its massively abused to do so copyright was never intended to restrict a market.

    So while I can think of laws that say this activity is allowed I can't think of any that would forbid it, I don't think their suit has a leg to stand on.

    This case's only hope is the DMCA, its got some pretty ridiculous restrictions of what can be done to software, and while I don't think it applies here I am however not a lawyer.

    Ok what the hell, is the captcha system context sensitive? my word was 'infringe'. Thats just spooky.

  • why a jury trial? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by belmolis (702863) <billposerNO@SPAMalum.mit.edu> on Saturday September 27, 2008 @09:04PM (#25181187) Homepage

    I wonder why Thomson is demanding a jury trial in a technical case like this. Surely they don't expect a company like theirs to come off as a particularly sympathetic victim. Juries tend to find cases like this confusing. I would think that I would prefer trial before a judge. Or is the idea that their case is so bad their only hope is to confuse a jury?

  • Endnote should die (Score:4, Interesting)

    by bigbigbison (104532) on Saturday September 27, 2008 @09:12PM (#25181229) Homepage
    Some colleagues keep suggesting that I use Endnote to keep track of my citations and so every year or two I give it a try. Even though they seem to update it every year it is still one of the worst programs I've ever used. It is unintuitive, offers no real error messages so you can't tell if it is working or not, and its method of inputting citations by hand is frustrating and confusing.

    I've only tried Zotero once shortly after it came out but hopefully it will survive this lawsuit and last long after Endnote is long forgotten...
  • Can you say... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Kalten (20368) on Saturday September 27, 2008 @09:18PM (#25181261)

    ...f***ing hypocrites?

    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.

    Thomson Reuters has a major division that develops tax and accounting software. The important thing to know about the tax and accounting software market is that it's saturated. Every accountant who wants software has it. If you want customers, you've got two choices: either get new accountants just coming into the market (which is balanced out by accountants retiring or otherwise leaving the market), or take them from your competitors.

    And how do you take customers from your competitors, you ask?

    First, by making better software. Second, by making sure that your prospective new customers don't have to re-enter every bit of information. You develop conversion software. Yes, that's right. You develop software--most likely in violation of the competitor's software's EULA--that extracts the data and digests it into a format that your software can handle.

    And Thomson Reuters does this on a regular basis.

    I used to work for them. I did exactly that for seven years. I think they may have just opened a can of worms that they really don't want to have open.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday September 27, 2008 @09:25PM (#25181297)

    Posting anonymously as I work within GMU (and don't have job protections that parent probably has).

    If software is managed campus-wide, then there's no need to bother the library. As far as I've heard (e-mail on the 25th), the entire university is dropping the EndNote site license as of Nov. 16. (Obviously, the injunction could have an impact on that.)

    We've been warned that EndNote is so tightly integrated with Microsoft Word and the rest of our base PC software load that there may be undesirable side effects when the license expires on November 16 -- it's too late to redo the image, so EndNote will have to stay installed but nonfunctional until the Spring image is pushed in January. I've only had a handful of students ask about using EndNote (to be fair to Zotero, I didn't even know about the software until we got notice that it would replace EndNote) and I've never come across a faculty member using it as part of a class.

    I was surprised by the announcement of the switch, since Zotero is FOSS. Quite frankly, the university spends money where it doesn't need to, and cuts corners where it shouldn't, which usually results in backpedaling, costing students and taxpayers. But maybe someone at GMU has figured out that trading expensive site-licensed software for comparable free software is a better alternative than cutting student services and operating hours in light of the recent statewide budget crunch.

  • by Geste (527302) on Saturday September 27, 2008 @09:35PM (#25181361)

    "There are plenty of reference managers for all platforms"

    True. But I see lots of folks at my university who are addicted to EndNote's buggy "Cite While You Write" functions that provide MS-Word integration. RefWorks has an analogous "Write while you cite" function, but still lots of people have accumulated libraries in EndNote and still have a love/hate addiction to CWYW.

    To make it worse, he negatives of this situation are not limited to EndNote but extend to Thomson-ISI's intent to maintain vertical lock-in. Our library provides ISI Web of Science on-line, but when you look at the licensing terms real hard it's abominable -- yes you can access these citations but don't think about really *using* them in any meaningful way (like citing them on your Web page). It's draconian.

    So it feels like getting past EndNote to a more open alternative will require freeing up all elements of the stack to include citation repositories. I ask in earnest: is there an alternative vision for these? A combination of repositories, APIs and tools that would delivery a "free" citation/bib system from top to bottom?

  • Re:Same old story (Score:3, Interesting)

    by benntop (449447) <craigo@NOspaM.gmail.com> on Saturday September 27, 2008 @11:37PM (#25181967) Homepage Journal

    I think that we might have different definitions of how good or bad EndNote is. As an individual neuroscience researcher who has his entire PDF library referenced in EndNote it does work well enough, not that I like it. You seem to be approaching it from a more technical standpoint of usability across many disciplines and citation types. There EndNote is indeed trash if you routinely require citations not found in EndNote's templates.

    As for the technical rigor of the programming, 99% of the citations I use in my manuscripts are books and journal articles. There might be a few conference presentations, personal communications, and whatnot in there as well, but that is about it. This reduces the scope of the problem to something that IS relatively easy to implement software-wise. The goal of CSL seems to be the creation of a catch-all language that can represent any citation. This is a far different problem in terms of difficulty.

  • by stm2 (141831) <sbassi&genesdigitales,com> on Sunday September 28, 2008 @11:47AM (#25184871) Homepage Journal

    In my lab there was a discussion about buying or not endnote (or similar program).
    Now thanks to Thomson Reuters and Slashdot I know of a nice alternative I didn't know before.
    I will also include this plugin as default in Dnalinux VDE.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday September 28, 2008 @12:29PM (#25185191)

    ... it feels like getting past EndNote to a more open alternative will require freeing up all elements of the stack to include citation repositories. I ask in earnest: is there an alternative vision for these? A combination of repositories, APIs and tools that would delivery a "free" citation/bib system from top to bottom?

    Perhaps one big counter-balance to Thomson is Google, and the general interest of publishers to get information out so as to enhance their market. Zotero is taking advantage of, and in turn further promoting, a more open model for citation data access. I believe this is where the future will be.

    On the client and citation processing end, you really need standardizing two things: 1) how word-processing applications and formats encode citation and bibliographic information, 2) how citation styling is configured. Both together open up room for competition, and give users more choice, as well as the capability to collaborate with colleagues who may use different solutions.

    There IS work on both of these issues. Microsoft's new (XML) Word format supports citations, and OpenDocument (and OpenOffice) is getting enhanced metadata support that will make it possible to tackle 1. CSL is one solution to 2, and it's just a question of getting more support for it.

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