George Mason University Issues Statement on Reuters/Zotero Lawsuit

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George Mason University issued a statement this morning regarding the lawsuit filed against it by the Thomson Scientific division of Reuters. It looks like GMU intends to fight the lawsuit. It has restored the functionality that allowed Zotero to understand the EndNote® citation style file format and announced that it will not renew its site license for Zotero EndNote. [Bah -- got this wrong initially. Thanks for pointing this out, Ryan.]

The Thomson Reuters Corporation has sued the Commonwealth of Virginia over Zotero, a project based at George Mason University’s Center for History and New Media (CHNM). A free and open-source software initiative, Zotero aims to create the world’s best research tool and has already been adopted by hundreds of thousands of users at countless colleges and research universities. CHNM announces that it has re-released the full functionality of Zotero 1.5 Sync Review to its users and the open source community. As part of its formal response to this legal action, Mason will also not renew its site license for EndNote.

As academics themselves, the creators of the Zotero project strive to serve the scholarly community and to respond to its needs in an age of digital research. In line with that simple goal, they maintain that anything created by users of Zotero belongs to those users, and that it should be as easy as possible for Zotero users to move to and from the software as they wish, without friction. CHNM concurs with the journal Nature, which recently editorialized [link added] about this matter: “The virtues of interoperability and easy data-sharing among researchers are worth restating.”

CHNM remains committed to the openness it has promoted since its founding at Mason in 1994 and to the freedoms of users of its websites and software. Its ambitious development cycle and plans for Zotero’s future remain unchanged. CHNM will continue to develop and implement new research technologies in the pursuit of better ways to create and share scholarship. CHNM greatly appreciates the many supportive comments it has received from scholars, librarians, and administrators around the globe.

The statement was also posted in the official Zotero blog and copied into the personal blog of Dan Cohen, director of GMU's Center for History and New Media. In addition, Zotero project co-director Sean Takats has a post describing some of the new features of the just-released update to the Zotero 1.5 Sync Preview development version.

Response from Thomson Reuters

Update 20081031T0822 : In a comment to this post, Allison noted that Thomson Reuters has issued a response:

The Scientific business of Thomson Reuters has initiated a law suit against George Mason University (GMU) because of violations of the terms and conditions of the EndNote® Desktop license agreement.

Thomson Reuters VP, Business Strategy and Development, Dave Kochalko said, “Simply put, we strongly believe that the creators of Zotero have reverse engineered our software code which enables EndNote’s bibliographic formatting capability. These format files only exist as software code; there is no content or information independent of lines of code and these files can only be interpreted by the computer. A key value of EndNote is its ability to format a bibliography within a manuscript and the format files are integral to that capability. We have talented employees who have invested many years in building this resource for the EndNote community.”

Kochalko added, “We are absolutely a proponent of interoperability and easy data sharing provided contracts are not breached and intellectual property is respected. We have worked diligently over the past several months to resolve this matter amicably. Since it has become clear that a resolution is not possible at this time, we have no choice but to pursue litigation in order to protect our intellectual property, as well as protect our bibliographic formatting capability, an important publishing resource our EndNote user-community has relied upon for many years.”

I think Thomson Reuters is really out on a limb here. File formats exist as bits of information; it is software code that interprets those bits of information. There is certainly a history of "black box deciphering of file formats. That is to say, examining the files themselves in the absence of the underlying source code to determine content and structure. There is precedent for this. All of that said, it looks like this conflict is going to wind up in the courts, and we might get a judgment on whether it was legal.

The text was modified to update a link from to on January 28th, 2011.