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Thomson Reuters Speaks

Following GMU’s release, Thomson Reuters has their own. In it, Thomson Reuters VP, Business Strategy and Development, Dave Kochalko claims:

Simply put, we strongly believe that the creators of Zotero have reverse engineered our software code which enables EndNote’s bibliographic formatting capability. These format files only exist as software code; there is no content or information independent of lines of code and these files can only be interpreted by the computer. A key value of EndNote is its ability to format a bibliography within a manuscript and the format files are integral to that capability. We have talented employees who have invested many years in building this resource for the EndNote community.

Notice the subtle legal/technical sleight of hand here: he says we strongly believe that the creators of Zotero have reverse engineered our software code, but he’s not actually referring to the application code itself, which is what one normally means when one refers to reverse-engineering of software. Rather, he is making the absolutely ridiculous claim that the style files themselves constitute “software” and thus that reverse-engineering the files constitutes reverse-engineering of the “Endnote software.”

Just to again bring up an analogy: this would be equivalent to Microsoft suing OpenOffice.org, Sun, and so forth for reverse-engineering Word when they reverse-engineered the Word file format. These are completely different technical and legal issues, but Dave wants to collapse them.

I cannot believe they actually make this claim in good faith; it seems more likely to me that they are attempting to confuse the issue so as to constrain competition in the marketplace, and it’s for this reason they are asking for a jury trial.

Note, also, that they claim that they have talented employees who have invested many years in building this resource for the EndNote community, but fail to note that their users have done much of the work on Endnote style files, and seem to have no problem at all implying that those users are violating the law if they want to use that work in other contexts.

I realize there’s already been some significant backlash against this suit, but maybe it’s time to start a formal “boycott Endnote” campaign to encourage individuals to migrate away from Endnote, and for institutions to drop their site licenses?

7 Comments

  1. steveb says:

    QUOTE: “maybe it’s time to start a formal “boycott Endnote” campaign to encourage individuals to migrate away from Endnote, and for institutions to drop their site licenses?”

    Do it.

  2. Rick says:

    I’m encouraged that he limited his accusations more narrowly than the many outlandish claims in the filing. Once we peel back the false claims (including conversion and distribution of styles that originated in EndNote), we are left with a simpler case.

    TR will have a hard time showing how they have incurred real financial damage: they are the primary distributors of .ENS files & EndNote users are the primary creators. If Zotero isn’t distributing the style files, that means that users of the feature are EndNote customers. How can people who have already purchased your product be preventing sales by using a third party product in addition to yours?

    Perhaps TR could claim lost revenue because they has been lax in policing third-party sites that distribute .ENS files. But that is obviously not GMU’s fault; if TR wanted to blame someone other than themselves, they’d have to file these self-defeating lawsuits against other research institutions that compose their customer base.

    Maybe they will be able to confuse a jury over the differences between a file format and a program that uses that file format. But I am optimistic about what the jury will be able to comprehend about that point. Most importantly, their customer base won’t be confused on the point & no amount of TR press releases will be able to undo the pro-interoperability/open data-sharing editorials in Nature, etc.

  3. Bruce D'Arcus says:

    @Rick: yes, I suppose it is encouraging that they’ve publicly admitted their case is based on such flimsy grounds. It seems to me the question of damage is entirely irrelevant in the face of that, since the Zotero team has done nothing to undermine Endnote’s market share except to create a better application.

  4. Bruce D'Arcus says:

    @steveb: I don’t have time to organize a boycott. But, I’d be happy to support such an effort if someone else did.

  5. Andrew Houghton says:

    I think the analogy you used is off the mark: “Just to again bring up an analogy: this would be equivalent to Microsoft suing OpenOffice.org, Sun, and so forth for reverse-engineering Word when they reverse-engineered the Word file format.”.

    A more appropriate analogy to what Thompson Reuters said would be akin to Zotoro reverse engineering a Virtual Machine. The claim by Thompson Reuters is that the Endnote application contains a VM and the style files are the compiled byte code that is run by the VM. Obvious parallels to Java, .NET, Basic and Forth.

    I’m not arguing whether Thompson Reuters stance against Zotoro is appropriate or not, just that the analogy you used is not a reflection, IMHO, of the quote from Thompson Reuters.

  6. Bruce D'Arcus says:

    Interesting interpretation Andrew.

    On reading the quote again, I’m relying for my interpretation on some other commentary by an EndNote person that I discussed earlier. So while you’re probably right that I may be reading too much into (or wrongly reading) the above quote, I don’t think I’m wrong in my basic interpretation. While I’m no expert on binary file formats, I think these files are pretty basic templates, not conceptually significantly different than the XML CSL styles.

  7. Rick says:

    Perusing Zotero’s code for using EndNote styles, I agree with Bruce’s assessment that ENS files seem to be mere templates.

    If they were something more, it would speak to horrible redundancy in the templates & would raise warning flags of possible arbitrary code execution exploits. It would also speak to major problems with EndNote’s style editor, which has significant limitations (e.g. inability to re-write fields).

    Their claim, if true, would be good for their case. But I doubt they’d make this same claim if they were talking to security-minded IT at institutions where they were trying to sell their software.