Cory Doctorow, an author and vocal advocate for digital civil liberties, recently reported on Boing-Boing that Reuters is suing George Mason University and Dan Cohen in relation to the popular Zotero citation management system. For those of you don’t know, Zotero is a free and open source pluggin for the Firefox browser. Zotero is a fantastic tool for scholars, since you can use it to automatically copy citation information from many important academic, library, and commercial collections (including JSTOR, Elsevier publications, Amazon, and many more) and build your own bibliographic database. You can also use Zotero to copy webpages and articles to maintain your own personal archive for later reference.

Obviously Zotero meets many of the same needs as the commercial Endnote system. Endnote is owned by Reuters (click here for the complaint specifics), the news wire service. According to the DLTJ blog, Reuters is suing the Zotero project for enabling users to convert from Endnote’s proprietary data style (see update) format to the non-proprietary data format preferred by Zotero. Essentially, Reuters would prefer to keep academics locked in their Endnote walled garden and are attempting to scuttle efforts at enhanced interoperability. 

If this lawsuit succeeds, this is really bad news for scholars, since it will limit their choice of tools and services. In effect, Reuters is claiming that you don’t really own the data you manage in Endnote, since they control everything that you can do with that data. I haven’t used Endnote in years (having shifted over to Zotero long ago), and I’m very glad I made that choice. Even Microsoft doesn’t make such strong claims about data in MS-Word, Excel, or Access file formats.

There may be improtant data preservation implications all of this as well. A researcher’s bibliographic database, which is often richly annotated, is an important resource. The Zotero project aims to help scholars share these databases in nonproprietary formats and this will make preservation of these important products of scholarship more likely. If such scholarship remains locked up, we run the risk of losing potentially valuable scholarly contributions.

At any rate, I want to point out that there is a silver-lining here. Obviously, nobody wants to get sued, but to my mind, the fact that Reuters is acting like this suggest that they see a threat here. To me, this means Dan Cohen and the whole Zotero team are doing an excellent job at giving the world of scholarly communication a much needed shake up. To have earned a lawsuit means that they are taken seriously, and that is a great sign of success!

UPDATE:

Thanks to Bruce for the clarification!