File Format Brouhaha Pits FOSS Against Proprietary

by Ostatic Staff - Oct. 09, 2008

How legally defensible are proprietary data formats? That's the question asked in this fascinating piece from Nature. The story reports on a lawsuit brought against George Mason University (GMU) by Thomson Reuters. Thomson is seeking $10 million in damages annually from GMU, according to the report, and open source software and file formats are  at the heart of the conflict.

As Nature reports:

"Dan Cohen, director of GMU's Center for History and New Media, and Sean Takats, a GMU history professor, are also directors of Zotero: open-source software developed by the history centre that lets researchers organize and share their digital information iTunes style, whether it is in the form of citations, documents or web pages."

Zotero is free, open source software (you can use it as a Firefox extension), but the problem that Nature reports is that Thomson makes a proprietary bibliography-creation software product called EndNote. The company claims that Zotero allegedly allows EndNote's proprietary data format for storing citations in bibliographies to be converted to an open format that not only Zotero but other applications can access. According to Nature: "Thomson claims that Zotero 'reverse engineered or decompiled' not only the format, but also the EndNote software itself."

If Thomson proves that the folks at Zotero did decompile the EndNote software, it may have legal grounds for its argument. On the other hand, even Microsoft has made many of its popular application file formats shareable by other applications. It's perfectly legal for OpenOffice and AbiWord to open and save .doc files, for example.

The GMU-vs.-Thomson case is a classic example of how open source solutions are starting to butt heads with proprietary ones. At the file format level, it would be good not to see territorial behavior--especially for applications used primarily by the academic and research communities.

I'm not saying there won't be territorial behavior. I'm saying it would be good not to see it.