<span style="display: none">First legal shot across the Semantic Web&#8217;s bow - Thomson suing Zotero</span>

Submitted by Danny Weitzner on Mon, 2008-10-06 14:16. ::

The original appearance of this entry was in Danny Weitzner - Open Internet Policy

Last week Thomson Reuters (the owner of EndNote Software, a widely used proprietary tool for collecting and managing scholarly bibliographic information) filed a lawsuit against Zotero, the most popular open source, Semantic Web-enabled bibliographic tool. Zotero, packaged as a Firefox extension, is a handy tool for collecting bibliographic metadata to assist scholars in managing information necessary for their research (news story, complaint). Zotero can import and export a variety of different bibliographic formats and does so in a web-friendly, RDF-enabled way. Exchanging and linking bibliographic information (ie., the title, author, publication venue) of scholarly communication is an important means to discover new links amongst individual pieces of research that are published around the world. This has been a high priority, for example, in the life sciences where new knowledge can be uncovered by linking individual pieces of research together.

The latest beta release of Zotero will read and write EndNote’s proprietary metadata format and import and export the citation formats that EndNote provides for a wide variety of academic journals. In response to this, Thomson sued the Zotero developers (an open source community hosted at George Mason University), charging that Zotero (and GMU) reverse engineered the EndNote citation file format in violation of EndNote’s end user license agreement (EULA).

The key effect of Thomson’s suit, if it succeeds, would be to create a legal doctrine that enables software developers to restrict the Semantic Web’s potential to promote data interoperability and data integration. The legal issue at bar has to do with reverse engineering and the enforceability of EULAs, both of which are important questions. And, there’s a lot of say about whether or not the compliant will stand up to legal scrutiny. That said, the Web community, as well as the scholarly community, ought to pay careful attention to this case because its outcome could have real bearing on how free we will all be in the future to exchange information and realize the knowledge-enhancing benefits of the Web through collaborative research.

Update: Nature Magazine editorializes about the threats to interoperability of the lawsuit.