There’s been a fair bit of buzz, both on some edublogs I respect and in the Sakai listserv, about Thomson Reuters suing George Mason University, alleging that the Zotero team illegally reverse engineered EndNote. My initial reaction to Thomson’s move was very negative and my final reaction may be equally negative. Even casual readers of this blog know that I am not a big fan of using intellectual property as an anti-competitive bludgeon in an already thin educational software market. I’m also not a big fan of the DMCA, a draconian law that goes way too far in an effort to stop piracy.
However, I am withholding judgment at the moment because, after reading Thomson Reuters’ complaint, I think that it actually may have significant merit.
The dispute is not around Zotero’s functionality in general but a specific feature that allows Zotero to import EndNote’s proprietary file format. More importantly, it is about the ability to import the style files that enables EndNote to format references from particular journals properly. If George Mason University had gone about its merry way building Zotero with every feature it has today except the ability to import this information from EndNote, there would be no suit.
What’s the big deal about this import feature? In their complaint, Thomson Reuters alleges that they have created over 3,500 publication import styles for EndNote while the Zotero team has only created 15 styles. So it’s not just an issue of the Zotero team copying a feature of EndNote. The specific feature they copied enables users to steal the labor that Thomson Reuters invested in creating an importer for each one of those many journals. That seems wrong to me.
I’m going to think about it some more, but my reaction at the moment is that the Zotero team should remove that importer feature, negotiate a settlement with Thomson Reuters, and compete honestly by finding a way to crowdsource the creation of their own import style files for various journals. If a company like Thomson Reuters is investing many person/hours into creating features that benefit academics, it is in nobody’s interest to discourage them—and, more importantly, other companies that may follow them into the market—by simply stealing the product of their labor. I’m not talking about “stealing” an idea about what features would be beneficial in a software category. I’m talking about stealing the actual work product in the form of 3,500+ laboriously created import format files. I may be opposed to educational software patents, and I may support Creative Commons and OER and all that good stuff, but I still believe in copyright laws. The last time I checked, even icons of openness like Richard Stallman and Lawrence Lessig do too.