Panlibus Blog

Thomson Reuters Sends Zotero a $10 Million EndNote

Reuters-Zotero George Mason University is being sued by Thomson Reuters to prevent the distribution of the excellent Firefox plugin, Zotero.  As reported via the Courthouse News Service:


Thomson Reuters demands $10 million and an injunction to stop George Mason University from distributing its new Web browser application, Zotero software, an open-source format that allows users to convert Reuters’ EndNote Software. Reuters claims George Mason is violating its license agreement and destroying the EndNote customer base.

Subject of a Talking with Talis podcast last year with Trevor Owens, Zotero is an impressive free open source tool for capturing, organising and citing research resources, that has been building a successful community of users around it.

Thomson Reuters is complaining about the 1.5 preview release of  Zotero, announced on July 8th, which introduces several new features including:

Support for thousands of existing Endnote® export styles.

Following that link to Endnote export styles you end up on a page containing the following words:

EndNote output styles are provided solely for use by licensed owners of EndNote and with the EndNote product.

That seems to be the bit that is behind the legal action taken.  The question is can they, or should they, enforce such a restriction – not being a legal expert I’ll stop ruminating further in that direction.

The folks in the Center for History and New Media at George Mason, must be wondering what has hit them, but you can’t go rattling the current business model of a someone the size, history and market position of Thomson Reuters without expecting some form of backlash.

I can imagine the cries of outrage that will emanate from the Open Source and Open Data communities because of this.  They will no doubt be matched by indignation and litigious thoughts from the commercial sector as other publishers check to see how Zotero is helping to distribute their output but not necessarily in a way they would like.

It’s ironic then that somewhere else in the Thompson  Reuters organisation there is a site/service with the following ambition:

We want to make all the world’s content more accessible, interoperable and valuable. Some call it Web 2.0, Web 3.0, the Semantic Web or the Giant Global Graph – we call our piece of it Calais.

Calais (Powered by Thomson Reuters) is a semantic web technology based project which in simple terms provides an API to information about people, organisations, geographies, books, authors, events, facts about them, and links between them.  It is a free API service can be used openly, for commercial and non-commercial use, to enrich applications.  (For an insight in to Calais and how it fits with Reuters’ business, I can recommend the podcast Paul Miller recorded with Barak Pridor of ClearForest, the technology with which Calais has been built).

The action being taken against Zotero is symptomatic of the classic growing pains as technology and distribution mechanisms move on.  Just like the scribes complaining  about movable type in the 1400’s, or  the music industry complaining about the mp3 download culture that emerged some 600 years later.

I predict that this will only one skirmish in a series of battles that will ensue as the information and knowledge publishing and distribution industry morphs into something new.  Will actions like this prevent it happening? – of course not.  Will it slow it down? – possibly.   If I was part of the Zotero project would I be worried? – yes, I might be;  some of the early vanguards of the music download revolution were forced out of the race by such legal challenges.  Nevertheless, be it the opening of access to newly created knowledge or providing useful open access to traditionally controlled data, things are a changing.  We will look back on actions like the one against Zotero, viewing them as inevitable battles to try to preserve rapidly outdating business models – anybody read the Innovator’s Dilemma recently!

I hope  that the Zotero folks survive to reap the rewards of their pioneering efforts.

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29 Responses

  1. lu Says:

    sheesh… the style my university uses wasn’t even available in endnote, we had to write it ourselves…. and they have the gall to say that what we created, we can only use with their software!?? seems a bit of a stretch to me!

  2. Ryan Shaw Says:

    I have been using OpenCalais for some research projects that I am working on. As of today I will begin replacing it with open alternatives (probably the Stanford NER). Reuters’ lawsuit is counter to the principles of standards and openness that Semantic Web evangelists advocate, and I hope they will not show their hypocrisy by continuing to use or publicize Reuters’ OpenCalais product.

  3. anon Says:

    And yet, the real issue is the George Mason site license.

    If the library had been in conversation with the Center for History and New Media, perhaps some of this idiocy could have been avoided.

    As it is, the lawsuit appears merited.

  4. Peter Murray Says:

    Following that link to Endnote export styles you end up on a page containing the following words: “EndNote output styles are provided solely for use by licensed owners of EndNote and with the EndNote product.”

    Very interesting. The January 13th snapshot of that page in the Wayback Machine doesn’t have that sentence. I wonder when it was added.

    I also have some commentary and links to where the court documents will hopefully be stored in a posting on my blog.

  5. Bruce D'Arcus Says:

    And yet, the real issue is the George Mason site license.

    Thomson are using this argument to claim that the Zotero team reverse-engineered the Endnote *application* when they merely reverse-engineered a *file format*. That distinction seems the more important “issue.”

  6. anon Says:

    Refworks (an Endnote competitor started by former ISI employees) waited until their NDAs expired to launch their product.

    I see a mix of arrogance and stupidity on both sides. Corporate academia deserves this, in my opinion.

  7. Bruce D'Arcus Says:

    Refworks (an Endnote competitor started by former ISI employees) waited until their NDAs expired to launch their product.

    Not seeing the relevance here. The focus in this suit is very narrow: the style configuration files. Thomson seems to be claiming that Zotero reverse-engineered the Endnote styling system (wrong; they reverse-engineered a file format; nothing wrong with that), that Zotero converts Endnote style files to CSL style files (wrong; it’s read-only), and that Zotero has in fact converted and distributed such converted files (again, wrong).

    Their facts are wrong. And since all of this has taken place in the open (anyone can read the code, and the style files), it’s easy to prove.

    I see a mix of arrogance and stupidity on both sides. Corporate academia deserves this, in my opinion.

    “Corporate academia”? I’m the primary developer of CSL. While I work for an academic institution, I did that work as an individual who was tired of depending on inadequate and proprietary commercial tools. I developed CSL long after I’d given up on Endnote. Zotero was developed by a group of historians for the most part, who had similar frustrations.

    If there’s a problem here with corporate academia, it’s the fact that they mindlessly support companies like Thomson with expensive site licenses with ridiculous terms who are prone to litigate when things don’t go their way. Let’s put this in perspective: Thomson is angry that Endnote users can migrate to Zotero by reading the style files that they themselves (the users) have created! As I’ve said elsewhere, this is akin to if Microsoft were to sue OpenOffice (and Sun) because it can read .dot files.

  8. anon Says:

    Bruce, your motives are pure, I’m sure.

    Mellon’s Community Source License, and George Mason’s dreams of technology transfer license fees are the arrogance and stupidity I reference along with Thomson’s quick reminder of the indifference curve.

    And add in Zotero Commons sharing copyrighted articles with the Internet Archive, and you have a number of litigious publishers lining up behind Thomson.

    Ending with your own words: “Put simply, Zotero looks more and more like a proprietary project dressed in free software clothing.

  9. Peter Murray Says:

    Anon — the rest of us on this thread of conversation are identifying ourselves and by extension our sponsoring organizations. Could you do the same please? It helps to know who is in the conversation.

    “George Mason’s dreams of technology transfer license fees” in relation to the Zotero project are news to me. Can you back up that remark with references to sources?

  10. Bruce D'Arcus Says:

    Anon.: I’d second Peter’s call for some self-disclosure, and (no pun intended) some citations.

    I’d also point out that you’re quoting me out of context there. I was not in any way questioning the motives of the Zotero team (as you seem to be?). I was merely laying out some problems with organization and governance that I think the project needed to address. Ironically, that they have partially done so will probably help them in this case, since the key pieces of information needed to assess the suit are publicly documented.

    As for litigious publishers, this is going to be another of my (longer term) projects: helping contribute where I can to open access publishing ;-)

  11. anon Says:

    I have a good reason for staying anonymous, but thank you for your courteous request.

    Do a search for other Mason projects and hosted and you’ll get an education.

  12. Rob Styles Says:

    Anonymity is an interesting thing. I would support anon’s right to remain anonymous in this debate if he/she feels that need.

    However, I would say that with that anonymity comes an increased responsibility.

    Anon: Without identifying yourself you leave people no sense of your affiliations and role in all of this. Your interest, and need for anonymity, may be questioned. It would help the debate hugely if you could work hard to provide citations and references for the assertions that you make.

    Doing that means that your privileged position (which I assume is your reason for remaining anonymous) can be used to help lead everyone else to relevant evidence to help us all form a balanced opinion.

    Rob Styles (employee of Talis)

  13. Bruce D'Arcus Says:

    Do a search for other Mason projects and hosted and you’ll get an education.

    This is too cryptic to be useful. Typing in your search terms in google returns nothing of relevance here. One or two direct links to sources would be more helpful.

  14. Peter Murray Says:

    I appreciate your desire to remain anonymous (heck — as a librarian who takes the ALA Code of Ethics seriously — I support it), but I agree that it does force you to engage in the conversation with a higher level of clarity.

    Do a search for other Mason projects and hosted and you’ll get an education.

    Are these GMU projects also funded by government agencies and private foundations with a history of building open source projects? Say what you might about Mellon’s “Community Source” initiatives, but Mellon is building a history of putting its own money on the line to build up community-driven efforts supported by a robust mixture of community support and commercial support options.

  15. Another Anon (not the same Anon as above) Says:

    I think this suit indicates that Thomson Reuters is suffering from their own lack of innovation. I am a happy user of EndNote version 4 (released in 2000). EndNote is currently at version 12 (released in 2008). Why have I not purchased any of the eight expensive upgrades since my version of the software was published? Because over the past eight years, the software engineers at Thomson Reuters seem to have gone out of their way to add as little functionality as possible to the program. Earlier this year, before EndNote 12 was released, I downloaded a demo version of EndNote 11 to see if I wanted to upgrade. I decided not to upgrade because I could find only a single feature (this was the “group” feature: the ability to group citations in folders) that would significantly improve my experience of the program. Otherwise the program worked exactly the same as the version released in 2000. Over those eight years, many other citation management programs have continuously added incredibly innovative features. We have seen the rise of web-based citation managers, Sente, Bookends, Bibdesk, Papers, and most innovative of all, Zotero. Now that Thomson Reuters is surrounded by much more innovative alternatives to EndNote, what do they do? They sue over a minor feature of a free program. Maybe instead of suing others for innovating, Thomson Reuters should consider doing some innovating themselves. Meanwhile, I’ll keep using EndNote 4.

  16. Jonathan Rochkind Says:

    I did, incidentally, think it was kind of odd (in a “can that really be legal”) sense when I heard Zotero was storing copies of copyrighted material from licensed databases in the internet archive. If someone tried to sue them for that… one question would be whether they have liabilty or the users pressing the ‘save’ button do, but it seems like someone probably does.

    But this one? I’m skeptical, for the reasons already stated. But the actual legal complaint is so poorly written that it’s hard to tell–they have not made the strongest case possible in that complaint, getting a number of facts wrong and leaving some things out. But the idea is that:

    a) the people who wrote Zotero were bound by the EndNote site license, and
    b) the EndNote site license prevented them from reverse engineering the EndNote style files

    And incidentally, Bruce and others, so far as I know the distinction between “application” and “file format” doesn’t matter, unless that site license prevented one and nto the other. In general, in the absence of an agreement to the contrary, you ARE allowed to reverse engineer whatever you want. Unless perhaps you think the EndNote site license -does- prevent someone from reverse engineering the app, but not from reverse engineering the file format?

    Anyway, it is not obvious to me that either ‘a’ or ‘b’ up there is true, but it’s certainly within the realm of possibility that both are true. I suspect that the Zotero developers were not aware of the EndNote site license at all, I have no idea if that helps or hurts their side of the case. It’s not clear to me that the EndNote site license would prevent them from reverse engineering the style file format even if they were bound by it, but it might. Even if it does, there’s a “c”, how much damages are EndNote really owed, and I suspect they are an order of magnitude or two less than they are claiming under the law.

    But we will see. If GMU actually stands up for themselves. I hope so.

  17. Jonathan Rochkind Says:

    Wow, although it actually occurs to me that at this point they don’t really have much choice but to ‘stand up for themselves’ one way or another. EndNote isn’t asking them to ‘stop or else’, EndNote is saying “what you’ve already done means you owe us $10 million.” But I guess GMU could still say either “Okay, if we make Zotero stop RIGHT NOW, can we reconsider?” as opposed to “Good job Zotero, you done good.”

  18. Bruce D'Arcus Says:


    Unless perhaps you think the EndNote site license -does- prevent someone from reverse engineering the app, but not from reverse engineering the file format?

    That was indeed my assumption, since a) the language of the suit and the license refers to the software, and b) I understand reverse-engineering of file formats to be much less dicey in general than applications.

  19. Rick Says:

    They’ve now got a click-through contract. Gripes on their forums.

  20. Rick Says:

    Peter’s Wayback machine link has been dead for a week. The internet archive has a slightly earlier snapshot

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