Stephen Downes and Scott Leslie have both expressed concern that my original post regarding the Zotero lawsuit was possibly too charitable toward Thomson Reuters. Sadly, as more information comes in, it’s beginning to look like they were right.
It’s still very early in this situation and I’m still gathering information. However, there have been some very informative comments on the original post, including several by several people who appear to have varying degrees of direct involvement with the reference manager space in general and Zotero development in particular. The new information has changed my view of the situation substantially. But before I get into that, let me recap Thomson’s argument and why it struck me as being a fair one when I read it.
Right now, there is no standard for importing references from the many, many different academic journals out there. In absence of a standard, Thomson went and created (a) an import style format that models the various reference styles of journals, including all the ideosyncrasies that they would present (I’m imagining it as an XML dialect, although I don’t know the implementation details and could easily be wrong), and (b) many, many individual files in that format for importing from various journals. Thomson’s legal filing claims they have over 3,500 style files and implies that many or most of them were created by them (as opposed to their users).
If the Zotero team is either redistributing the import styles created individually by Thomson employees or encouraging their users to redistribute those files in violation of copyright, then I stand by my argument that this would be ethically wrong. A competitor like Zotero has other options, such as creating their own style format and crowd-sourcing the creation of import styles. If you think of each one of those style files as something like an adapter or a driver, then Thomson is alleging that the Zotero team is either pirating or encouraging the pirating of those adapters or drivers. Whether or not there should be open and freely available converters is a separate issue in my mind. I still believe that Thomson’s argument (or this portion of it, at least) is logically valid.
Unfortunately, it is also based on claims that appear to be factually false. Apparently, the Zotero team did create their own style format and is crowd-sourcing the creation of import styles. As you can see from this Zotero developer discussion thread, the developers considered and explicitly rejected supporting the redistribution of Thomson-supplied EndNote conversion files. In fact, while Zotero can read EndNote style files, it specifically does not convert them into Zotero’s own format, in large part to discourage the redistribution (deliberately or accidentally) of Thomson-created files. What the import feature does facilitate is (a) users who have already licensed EndNote and want to migrate to Zotero can use the EndNote styles that they have already paid for, and (b) Zotero users can take advantage of the EndNote import styles that individual journal publishers (as opposed to Thomson itself) make available for the convenience of their subscribers. These uses strike me as totally within bounds.
This would leave Thomson with the much weaker argument that George Mason University (where the Zotero team works) violated their licensing agreement with Thomson by trying to reverse engineer EndNote. Even assuming they can make their legal case that GMU did violate their license (since the fact that GMU licenses EndNote doesn’t mean that they made an explicit attempt to reverse-engineer it), I don’t think that many academics are going to be terribly sympathetic toward Thomson for using the clause to block the development of a reasonable and responsible feature. I’m certainly not.
Whether or not Thomson turns out to have a legal case, what they are doing is strategically stupid. Unlike Blackboard, whose unpopular actions with the patent have had limited economic impact so far because the teachers who are unhappy don’t make the purchasing decisions and because LMS migration is so difficult and expensive, Thomson could suffer massive losses fairly quickly. They have huge exposure to purchasing decisions made by individual faculty—purchasing decisions where changes don’t necessarily entail a massive a mount of pain. A campaign on Facebook or through organizations such as CCCC could quickly encourage large numbers of faculty not only to migrate from EndNote but also to boycott Thomson textbooks and other publications. I don’t think it would take terribly many professors giving their Thomson sales reps an earful to generate substantial pressure on Thomson to back down. The trouble for the company is that, once this sort of thing starts, it will be nearly impossible to stop it. Simply choosing to drop the lawsuit would not be enough to undo the brand damage should a real grassroots uprising against Thomson take hold.
I’m still going to keep an open mind on this and continue to gather data, particularly since I’ve only known about this for a few days and still don’t have very many details, but I’m coming around to the opinion that Thomson’s lawsuit is probably ethically wrong and almost certainly foolish from a business perspective.
Update: I did a little digging over the weekend to remind myself of just how much exposure to the educational market Thomson Reuters currently has. And with the sale of their Thomson Learning and Prometric units, it looks like their current exposure to an academic boycott is relatively small. They have a few publications in some disciplines that academics could avoid, but other than that, I don’t see much. If anybody has different information, please let me know.