The most dramatic thing I almost missed due to my back problem at the start of this semester was EndNote suing Zotero. Well, actually, it was Thomson Scientific suing George Mason University (GMU), home of the Center for History and New Media — for whom I worked as an evangelist and project associate from 2007-2008 with Zotero. It’s been more than two months now since the assembled forces of darkness attacked Zotero, a free add-on for Mozilla Firefox to capture and manage citations, produce bibliographies, and navigate the research web.
While the web has dramatically transformed our access, the primary currency of academic knowledge production remains citations to other works. Prolific footnotes and generous bibliographies are the bread crumbs through which we can account for our own thoughts as researchers. In many ways, the web betrays its academic origins through the same logic of citation, which was buit into the basic structure of the web through its logic of links between pages and sites. Unlike EndNote, a fat desktop application, Zotero works inside the browser as an aid for storing, mixing and sharing citations to books, journals, web pages and media for reference, much like index cards, comments scrawled in margins, and lists and notes worked for an earlier generation researchers (and plenty of people today).
Thomson’s main complaint that Zotero “reverse-engineered” EndNote’s proprietary .ens format in a beta version, and are therefore in breach of their site license for EndNote. They are claiming damages of ten million dollars for the allegedly unauthorized distribution of this bit of EndNote inside Zotero. The Citizen Media Law Project run by Sam at the Berkman has the best single page on the EndNote Zotero suit, from their legal threats database, with a round-up of the key news items and blog posts on the lawsuit. See in particular Thomson Reuter’s original complaint filed in the Virginia State Court, the response by George Mason University in defense of interoperability.
This blog post summarizes and satirizes the legal claims, and this one analyzes the license violation in light of earlier state rulings. They are seeking damages from Zotero on the basis of a violation of GMU’s user license, and not on the basis of copyright, and the claim is peculiar. Those familiar with sharing citation styles knows that there is not much that needs reverse-engineering. Until very recently, we lacked even a basic markup language for sharing bibliographic data on the web. Then there was CSL, a creation of geographer and frustrated EndNote user Bruce D’Arcus whose simple scheme rapidly proliferated hundreds of citation styles in a matter of a few months, and which became Zotero’s native format for expressing citation styles. This was not reverse engineering, but rather open source development, where one person’s scratch can relieve thousands of itches.
GMU is a public institution supported by the Commonwealth of Virginia, and EndNote’s vendor, Thomson Scientific, is owned by Reuters. With such big names about to go to court the stakes are quite high for all casual and professional users of the web for any kind of systematic research. As an alumni of the Zotero team and doctoral student at MIT, it was gratifying to have friends in the free software community respond to the lawsuit. Mako was an early supporter (see the talk on Zotero he gave in my place at Wikimania). MacKenzie Smith at MIT Libraries summarizes the issues and gives an endorsement of Zotero in her blog post and her podcast. Also see legal expert Danny Weitzner‘s blog post, where he describes the suit as a legal strategy by a large software firm to restrict data interoperability on the web.
With a little help from these friends, as well as Eben Moglen and the Software Freedom Law Center now representing GMU pro-bono in the state court, the outcome will be interesting. Free software and open standards are quickly kicking the stools out from underneath the mess of clunky and expensive proprietary tools which made up the researcher’s basic software stack, though we have a long way to go. With integrated tools like Zotero, Firefox, and OpenOffice, the circle has already been completed between the research web and the writer’s desktop.