EndNote maker’s lawsuit over open-source Zotero dismissed

June 6, 2009

An open source software project got some good news this week, as a judge dismissed a suit brought by the maker of a commercial alternative. Thomson Reuters, which makes EndNote, an academic reference management product, had filed suit against George Mason University, claiming that its support of the open source Zotero project, which imports EndNote files, was in contravention of the university’s license to EndNote. The suit, which requested an injunction against the distribution of Zotero, has now been dismissed. Depending on whether Thomson Reuters appeals or refiles the suit, this may leave Zotero in the clear.

Academic reference managers, which allow their users to keep track of the publications that they cite when writing up their own research, are a fairly specialized market. EndNote has a number of features that make it a compelling option, including a series of filters for online search queries and tight integration with document preparation software, notably Microsoft Word. It also offers one of the few cross-platform options on the market, and has a large library of reference styles to match the formats used by different journals. But there is also a degree of product lock-in, as many researchers have built up libraries of thousands of references over the years.

Zotero undoubtedly looks a bit threatening to Thomson Reuters, as it has a number of these features. It operates as a browser plug-in, which allows it to cross platforms easily and integrate well with online searches; it is also able to import EndNote reference databases. But the key feature that got it into legal trouble was the fact that it was able to import and use EndNote reference style files.

As it turns out, that last feature is what got George Mason University in hot water. GMU supports the development of Zotero but, until recently, it had a site license to the EndNote software. That license contains clauses that prohibit the reverse-engineering of the software or creation of derivative works. Since Zotero reads EndNote files, the suit accused GMU of violating this license.

The case could have addressed some interesting questions, such as the degree to which duplicating functionality falls under the definition of reverse engineering, and whether a file-format translator is a derivative work, as well as whether it’s legally permissible to prohibit either of these. Zotero also serves what is primarily an educational audience, and educational purposes have a fair use exception in many cases. But, the suit’s quick dismissal suggests that none of these issues are likely to be aired in a courtroom, at least as a result of this case.

That said, neither of the parties to the case, Thomson Reuters and GMU, have been willing to make official statements about the decision as of when we prepared this report. The dismissal was first reported on the blog of one of Zotero’s directors (I’ll digress to note that the blog is named The Quintessence Of Ham), but the author indicates that he doesn’t expect to have details on the decision until some time next week. The relevant court doesn’t post information on these matters, and was unable to supply us with details. One of the people we contacted suggested it may have been dismissed simply on procedural grounds, but we have been unable to confirm this.

The Zotero blog post does, however, note that the suit hasn’t slowed down Zotero development in the slightest, as a number of major features have been added in the nine months since it was filed. A number of these features seem compelling enough that they might induce some users to switch even in the absence of an EndNote import function.

This post has been written by John Timmer on June 5, 2009 2:52 PM couresy of arstechnica.com.


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