Zotero Lawsuit Illustrates Conflict Between Open Source and Contractual IP Rights

by Lee Gesmer on October 21, 2008

The following is background that may be necessary for some readers to understand the issues raised in the Thompson v. Zotero lawsuit, discussed below.

The Mozilla Firefox web browser (the second-most popular web browser, after Microsoft Internet Explorer) allows anyone with the talent and interest to develop “add-ons”. An add-on is a computer functionality that is added to and integrated with the Firefox browser. The Firefox user downloads the add-on from the web, and the add-on is automatically “installed” by Firefox. The add-on can be used, disabled or deleted, at the user’s choice. What makes this possible is that Firefox is an open source web browser, allowing developers to fully integrate their software with the browser. Developers can register their add-ons with the Firefox web repository, where over 6,000 add-ons are available. The add-ons are rated and critiqued by users, creating a reliable marketplace based on reputation.

Microsoft’s Internet Explorer has add-onsin name, but it is a much more restricted, less open and less integrated technology, and therefore is far less robust than the Firefox add-ons. For this reason, the Firefox add-ons are growing at an exponential rate, and their availability is contributing to the growing popularity of Firefox.

Some of the add-on technologies are so robust that they are taking market share from conventional, for-profit companies. This seems to be the case with the Zotero add-on, which may be taking market share from the Thompson Reuters product, EndNote Software. Both products help academics and researchers create academic bibliographies and manage citations. However, EndNote’s traditional, packaged software costs almost $300, whereas Zotero’s add-on is free and can be downloaded in seconds. It appears that some potential purchasers of Endnote are opting for the lesser functionality of Zotero given the better price and convenience.

With that as background, the lawsuit.

Zotero was created by employees of George Mason University, which is owned by the Commonwealth of Virginia. George Mason is a licensee of EndNote, and the license prohibits reverse-engineering. Thompson alleges that the George Mason developers reverse engineered EndNote in order to allow Zotero to convert proprietary EndNote files into open source Zotero files.

Now, a word about the law. It is clear that a software program may be reverse engineered (decompiled or disassembled, for example) as part of the process of developing a compatible product. This so-called “intermediate copying” was held to be copyright fair use in the Sega v. Accolade case in 1992 and was reaffirmed by no less a legal luminary than Judge Richard Posner in Assessment Technologies v. WIREdata decided in 2003.

However, it is also true (as the Assessment Technologies case points out) that this right of fair use may be restricted by a contract. (See Bowers v. Baystate Technologies (2003), to the same effect). A contract or license may prohibit reverse engineering or the creation of intermediate copies.

If George Mason’s contract with Thompson contained a “no reverse engineering” provision as Thompson asserts in its lawsuit, and George Mason did in fact reverse engineer EndNote to achieve compatibility, George Mason/Virginia may be liable for breach of contract. In fact, EndNote may have blocked the legal ability of any legal licensee of EndNote to reverse engineer EndNote for this purpose, since presumably not only George Mason but every proper licensee would be similarly restricted.

Whether this turns out to be the case – whether George Mason did reverse engineer EndNote to achieve compatibility, and whether EndNote has built a legal “Maginot Line” with no breaks or faults, across which no competitive developer can cross, remains to be seen as the facts of the case develop. It may be the case that the EndNote software did not require reverse engineering in order for Zotero to access its formats. It may also be the case that Zotera (or others in the marketplace, even nonlicensees) can technically and legally sidestep any contractual restrictions, and still provide conversion to EndNote file formats.

Whichever way this case goes, this dispute is interesting because it represents the clash of the old and the new: old, in the sense that savvy IP lawyers have been advising their clients for years to use contracts, in addition to copyright, to protect their software, and it appears that EndNote has tried to do this. New, in the sense that open source, when combined with new web technologies, may present a competitive and technical challenge to products like EndNote that good lawyering may be able to delay, but may prove unable to stop.

The complaint in this case can be accessed here.

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