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.