Thomson Reuters Takes Virginia to Court over Zotero

by Ostatic Staff - Sep. 28, 2008

Legal news wire service Courthouse News reported recently that Reuters was suing the Commonwealth of Virginia because George Mason University was "handing out its proprietary software." Nothing is ever that simple, is it?

George Mason University's Center for History and New Media distributes Zotero, an open source Firefox extension that helps users collect and manage citations found on the web. It performs a similar function as Thomson Reuter's EndNote software. The lawsuit is based on the premise that Zotero's newest beta is able to convert the proprietary EndNote format to the open CSL (Citation Style Language) format.

A lawsuit over a file format conversion?

Well, yes, in a way... Plenty of open source (and closed source) applications can convert a proprietary format into an open one, and vice versa. Thomson Reuters claims that Zotero developed the .ens (EndNote style) to .csl (Citation Style Language) conversion tool by reverse engineering the EndNote software. Thomson Reuters says this is in direct violation of EndNote's end user license agreement.

Reverse engineering is prohibited by EndNote's EULA, surely. What is suspect is whether any one responsible for the "conversion tool" ever agreed to the EULA in the first place -- and whether the "conversion tool" actually converts EndNote styles at all.

When one considers the discussion in the Zotero TracTickets system regarding the legalities of the conversion -- and Zotero's determination that dropping a publicly available existing (unlicensed) EndNote Style file into the database to be read or edited is legal and could be supported, and the retention of style or outward conversion into the .csl format would be an infringement and could not be supported, Thomson Reuters' rumblings seem even more brutish.

Slashdot has some rather enlightening comments on the case. Software patents and license agreements need at the very least clarification, and more likely full on revision -- but my guess is that Slashdot commenters are correct in their belief that in this case, it is entirely unnecessary. The EULA claims that the application can not be reverse engineered. It wasn't. The file format, the end product, can be opened and easily read and edited with a third party application. Seeing that many files are user contributed, and have no associated licenses, Thomson Reuters' case feels weak, if not completely frivolous.