Thomson Reuters Sues George Mason University For Making Its Software Output More Useful

from the how-dare-they! dept

A bunch of folks have been submitting the news that financial information giant Thomson Reuters is suing George Mason University for the high crime of releasing some software that can convert the output of Thomson Reuters own EndNote software into a more open format. EndNote is software for creating bibliographies, from a variety of different databases. The George Mason software, Zotero, does the same thing — but also will take documents saved in EndNote’s proprietary format and save it in its own open format. In normal times, under normal laws, this shouldn’t be a problem. Reverse engineering is considered a perfectly legitimate practice in most cases — and, in fact, is considered an important part of the competitive market in driving innovation. But, thanks to the DMCA, when it comes to software, this type of behavior can be blocked within a license agreement. This is one of the worst parts of the DMCA, in that it’s clearly not about protecting copyrighted material, but about preventing any sort of competition in the market place.

If Thomson Reuters execs actually thought about this, they would realize that Zotero actually makes EndNote more valuable by making the output more valuable. As long as Thomson Reuters is willing to keep adding more and better features, then it should have nothing to worry about from Zotero, who only enhances the value of EndNote’s output. Instead, Thomson Reuters is using the old claim of felony interference with a business model to shut down a university-produced open competitor. Thomson Reuters’ claims make this quite clear, in saying that Zotero is “destroying the EndNote customer base.” Back here, in the real world, most people call that competition and think it’s a good thing, rather than against the law.

Filed Under: , , , , , ,
Companies: george mason university, thomson reuters

Rate this comment as insightful
Rate this comment as funny
You have rated this comment as insightful
You have rated this comment as funny
Flag this comment as abusive/trolling/spam
You have flagged this comment
The first word has already been claimed
The last word has already been claimed
Insightful Lightbulb icon Funny Laughing icon Abusive/trolling/spam Flag icon Insightful badge Lightbulb icon Funny badge Laughing icon Comments icon

Comments on “Thomson Reuters Sues George Mason University For Making Its Software Output More Useful”

Subscribe: RSS Leave a comment
Anonymous Coward says:

It makes the commercial software LESS valuable by removing its virtue of being necessary to communicate with the given file format. It is now optional, so its value consists of everything else it might have going for it MINUS its necessity.

Never mind that this is a silly, contrived, anti-virtue and a loathsome restraint of trade business practice.

Mike42 (profile) says:


This software is free and open source, used by over 100 institutions including MIT. It also converts many other formats, so if they aren’t allowed to read this one, no big deal. They can host this plugin in a country who doesn’t care. However, by attacking this software, they are attacking Universities, large numbers of impressionable youth. Maybe they’ll get off their duffs and fight this crap, instead of sitting on their duffs like the rest of my generation.

Nogard says:

Agh!! Those bloody idiots!

As a PhD student, this is happens to be directly relevant to me. As it turns out, I happen to use both Endnote and Zotero. Zotero is absolutely great for building up bibliographies, since it is a Firefox plugin that can harvest references from practically any website, which, incidentally happens to be the best way of finding new papers. However, it does not adequately fill the niche of Endnote of being able to insert and format bibliographies inside Word, especially the latest 2008 version for Mac, at which Endnote excels. Also, not being a stand-alone application, it’s not quite as good a general manager of reference libraries.
Obviously, the ability to exchange libraries between both programs is of huge value and makes for a great synergy, but now, those morons at Thomson are screwing all up in a masterstroke of stupidity! >_

Nogard says:

Re: Agh!! Those bloody idiots! Part 2

Indeed, instead of taking advantage of the huge benefits that Zotero provides from browser integration (which they couldn’t think of, apparently), they are shooting themselves on the foot (and a lot of students and researchers in the process) with their idiotic lawsuit!
Not that I could afford their overpriced software anyway (I use either a institutional licence or a *cough cough* pirate copy), but now I will gladly dump their stupid software once Zotero’s Word integration gets a bit more polished, hopefully before I have to write up my thesis.
Congratulations on destroying your own customer base, morons!

Nogard says:

Re: Re: Agh!! Those bloody idiots! Corollary

My outrage about Thomson led me to search for alternatives to Endnote, and found Sente. Mac OS X only, but I don’t mind. Seems to do pretty much everything Endnote does, and with a better interface. Also quite importantly, it’s not stupidly overpriced.
So, if Zotero doesn’t have its cite-while-you-write feature working nicely by the time I need it for my thesis, I now know which reference manager I’m getting. And yeah, I might even pay for it.

Noksagt (user link) says:


The complaint is not against being able to import an EndNote database of references, nor are there any complaints of DMCA violations (doesn’t the DMCA allow for reverse engineering for the purpose of interoperability?).

The lawsuit is currently about violating the site licensing agreement.

Thomson Reuters alleges (incorrectly) that Zotero reverse engineered and/or decompiled EndNote. They (correctly) point out that one version of Zotero (the feature has since been disabled) could process EndNote’s undocumented style files. These files have a .ens extension and instruct EndNote how to format a citation (so there would be one .ens file for the Chicago style, one for the APA style, one for how to cite articles if you are writing an article for Nature, etc.) They (incorrectly) allege that Zotero converts these files into the open CSL format. They (incorrectly) allege that Zotero distributes CSL files that were created in this way. Finally, they object to the “EndNote” trademark being used to describe how this is done.

This is a nuisance suit that is intended to spread FUD.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Yes, we do in fact, have a partnership with Thomson (no p, btw). But why should that stop us from providing our analysis? Wouldn’t you think less of us for changing our analysis based on who we work with?

Ah. Quite interesting to say the less. So I wonder how it would work if a mod jumped in, took a public item to a private Insight Community (revenue-based) case. How would that would work? May be interesting for some. Costly for others.

Jake says:

Re: Re: Re:

Wouldn’t you think less of us for changing our analysis based on who we work with?

I dare say Thomson might; the kind of outfit that prefers dirty tricks and sabotage to improving their product when faced with competitors -ie just about bloody well everybody these days- tends to cut up very stroppy when called on it.

Dale says:

You keep making the same mistake

You misrepresented the original “felony interference with a business model” and you keep doing it here. “Destroying the EndNote customer base” is *not* the alleged wrongdoing. Reverse engineering is. “Destroying the EndNote customer base” is only mentioned to demonstrate the *damage* caused by the actual alleged wrongdoing.

Mike (profile) says:

Re: You keep making the same mistake

“Destroying the EndNote customer base” is *not* the alleged wrongdoing. Reverse engineering is.

Reverse engineering is legal. So… what’s the problem?

This is very much an attempt to play on the sympathy vote that their business model can’t stand up to competition. I believe the original post was accurate.

Dale says:

Re: Re: You keep making the same mistake

They say that the university has a site license that forbids reverse engineering. They claim breach of contract (and, weirdly, trademark infringement). Whether their claims have merit or not is besides the point I was making. The claim is *not* “destroying the user base”. This is the *damage* from the breach of contract.

And calling the act of demonstrating damages “playing on the sympathy vote” is plain silly. If you want to be awarded an injunction and damages in a civil case you have to show damages. It’s not a “play” on anything, showing damages is the meat of a civil case.

noksagt (user link) says:

Re: Re: Re: You keep making the same mistake


It is neither clear that the professors of a University are bound to site agreements made by the University nor that what the Zotero team did even violates the license agreement (as they did NOT decompile or reverse engineer the EndNote software–they merely figured out how the undocumented style files work).

Add Your Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Comment Options:

Make this the or (get credits or sign in to see balance) what's this?

What's this?

Techdirt community members with Techdirt Credits can spotlight a comment as either the "First Word" or "Last Word" on a particular comment thread. Credits can be purchased at the Techdirt Insider Shop »

Follow Techdirt

Techdirt Daily Newsletter

Techdirt Deals
Techdirt Insider Discord
The latest chatter on the Techdirt Insider Discord channel...