• x

    doesn’t this case fit into the “decompilation right” clause (at least under the E.U. copyright law), where one is allowed to decompile and study how the software works for the sake of interoperability?

  • Rick

    US IP law also allows reverse engineering for the purpose of compatibility, which is why Thomson Reuters did not make this an IP case–they made it a contract case.
    Their contract prohibits decompilation of software. It doesn’t say anything at all about file formats. In order to quash migration away from their product, they have to pretend the two are the same.
    Bibliographic style files are trivial & the EndNote format, while undocumented, is simple. Furthermore, Thomson Reuters is not responsible for the creation of a many style files–end users are. As a content creator, I should be able to do with my files what I want to do with them. If I buy MS Word, I expect to be allowed to open Word DOCs in OpenOffice.

  • http://www.semanticsincorporated.com Greg Boutin

    Interesting information and perspectives. Do you have US and European sources to point us to so we can learn a bit more and see ‘how’ reverse-engineering is allowed?
    If that’s the case without lots of conditional requirements, then I still maintain these regulations seem over-reaching. No one is forcing you to buy the product if you don’t like it.
    “As a content creator, I should be able to do with my files what I want to do with them. If I buy MS Word, I expect to be allowed to open Word DOCs in OpenOffice.”
    I disagree with your assertion that this is a birth right. You might well expect the freedom to move your data across, but that doesn’t mean software makers have to be forced to enable it.
    Now, if they are smart, they ultimately will and instead compete on the merit of their products. Ultimately, market dynamics will achieve the same result. But again, unless they were given a monopoly, I don’t see on what basis software makers should be legally forced to open up.

  • Bruce D’Arcus

    You’re not being very coherent or consistent, Greg. First you say in your post that an alternative product should not be able to, as you say, “reverse-engineer algorithms to force companies to open up their data.” When Rick points that this is not what’s going on at all—that Zotero simply allows a user to migrate their own “data”—you again mischaracterize the issue, and effectively shift goal-posts, by stating that “software makers [should not] have to be forced to enable it.” What’s the referent (“it”) here, and what exactly is the software maker enabling? If what you are meaning to say is that Thomson Reuters should be free to legally crush competitors that allow users to move their own data to a competitive product by reverse-engineering their file format, then I don’t think there’s much legal precedent to support that position. I also don’t see how you think that would be anything but destructive to both the software market, and to its users. Imagine if when Word or Excel came around Wordperfect or Lotus had successfully sued MS for reverse-engineering its file format? The consequence of that position, it seems to me, is to suggest that software companies own users’ data. Do you really believe that?

  • http://www.semanticsincorporated.com Greg Boutin

    Bruce,
    As per usual blog etiquette, let me point out that you should make your case using reason, as you ultimately do with your Wordperfect/Word example, rather than by starting with firing antagonistic remarks that border on an accusation of intellectual dishonesty. I’d invite you to be a little more conservative in your blog comments, and just state your case rather than try to support it by undermining the opposite one.
    Your accusations of inconsistency and incoherence are poorly backed. You ask what’s the referent (“it”) in “software makers [should not] have to be forced to enable it”. The answer was in the line just before that: “the freedom to move your data across”. Re: “What exactly is the software maker enabling”, the answer is the same. And that would be authorizing other applications to read their proprietary format, as we’ve been talking about all along in this thread.
    Then you quote two parts from my post and comments as a supposed proof of my inconsistency. Next time you might want to pick two quotes that are not as consistent as those two… Companies don’t have to enable data interoperability if they don’t want to, and therefore reverse engineering their format shouldn’t be allowed if they refused it. What’s incoherent about that? The only way I seem to have “mischaracterized” the issue is by disagreeing with you and Rick. Were you just trying to say that I should have addressed the point that “Zotero simply allows a user to migrate their own “data”? Then why not say so more simply…
    This data includes format that were created in Endnote, whose transfer to other systems Endnote may not have approved. So although that data may or may not be defined as the “user’s data”, the data format is protected and it can’t be read somewhere else. If we don’t offer that protection to software makers, then I guarantee you that some are going to invest in making their data formats “un-reverse-engineerable”, and that won’t necessarily be a bad business decision, although it may not be terribly productive from a society and a user perspective.
    Note I never said that I was a fan of closing up data, very much the opposite in fact, but I’m a pragmatic and I know that this is what makes an investment worthwhile in some cases. Just like printer makers generate their money on proprietary cartridges, many software makers rely on locking in their users, and that’s why they invest in the product in the first place. If Zotero wants to compete, why can’t it just create its own standard? Besides, could Zotero survive with open standards if it was an actual business? Nothing is less sure.
    So, to say it one more time, I do think that companies shouldn’t be forced to open their format if they don’t want to. And customers who buy their product should know better if they want to export their creations. It’s a free world after all. Companies can choose to invest in protected proprietary formats and customers are free not to buy the corresponding products if they don’t like that restriction.
    Now, a point Rick brought up is that Thomson may not have stated clearly in their contract that the reverse-engineering clause applied to both code and formats, and Rick believes those are different cases. First, I don’t know whether that’s the case or not that Thomson didn’t point that out.
    Second, if it is true, I personally disagree that the protection applied to code shouldn’t apply to formats, because I put proprietary standards in the same basket as any IP protected by copyrights. The only argument against it I’d consider potentially valid is if the abuse of a monopolistic position led to some vast gauging, which I think would only apply in this case if Endnote had an obscene market share. Which it may or may not, and even that depends on many things (market definition among others). But opening up its format would just be one way that can be addressed, and it wouldn’t be done because “data format ought to be open”.
    Third, I had asked Rick and haven’t seen any evidence either for your claim that “there isn’t much legal precedent to support that position”. I would want to see the actual reason data format opening may have been forced in such cases, which again may well do with antitrust-type laws rather than “data format ought to be open”. Even so, it’s not because it’s law that it is right.
    The case for openness is based on the assumption that data is more valuable for users when it is open. Perhaps so, but it’s not always the case for companies. That’s why companies don’t open up. Unless the software maker has sold to you the right to its file format with the software, then sorry, it doesn’t have to let someone else piggyback on it.
    Last, on “I also don’t see how you think that would be anything but destructive to both the software market, and to its users. Imagine if when Word or Excel came around Wordperfect or Lotus had successfully sued MS for reverse-engineering its file format?”
    Yes, I imagine. And so? Word would have built its own format and would have looked for other ways than interoperability to take users away from Wordperfect, Corel would have kept building its position and kept improving its product. May not be as great for users, although even that’s unclear, but it would certainly be more coherent with the set of copyright laws that we have in place for pretty much any other IP out there.
    Again, the users perspective is not the only thing that should dictate the market rules here. Many business model will rely on proprietary standards, and in many cases, the longer those are protected, the more money the company can make. Sounds evil, but encouraging companies to invest is not. After all, let’s not forget open source relies largely on the contributing programmers having day jobs at such “evil” companies, and often piggybacking on R&D paid for by the same companies…

  • Bruce D’Arcus

    OK, I probably shouldn’t have jumped in with the strong response. Apologies.
    But, I really wasn’t questioning your sincerity; just the clarity and consistency of your argument.
    To boil this down, you seem to believe that a company can claim legal ownership of a file format in a way that requires another party to solicit permission from them in order to even attempt to read that format. My (admittedly thin) understanding of copyright law is that this is not true.
    From what Thomson Reuters has so far said publicly, I’d say they agree with me, as they are not claiming Zotero reverse-engineered their file format. They go pretty far out of their way to not do so, and instead to argue that Zotero has reverse-engineered the Endnote application per se.
    But, here’s the weird wrinkle: they are trying to claim the style files are themselves software. I doubt that argument will work.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/gregboutin/ Gregory Boutin

    It’s not that you “probably” shouldn’t have jumped ahead with the strong response, Bruce. You categorically shouldn’t have. Apologies accepted, but since there is a “but” after the apologies and you once again bring up the “incoherence” in my reply, let me point out you haven’t addressed any of the backing arguments I brought up… On the other hand, you may have a point about the clarity of my reply since you keep rephrasing it to claim something completely different from what I wrote black-on-white :)
    You say that I “seem to believe that a company can claim legal ownership of a file format in a way that requires another party to solicit permission from them in order to even attempt to read that format.”
    I don’t know where you get that from, especially when I’ve made it clear in at least two instances that I wasn’t commenting on the legal aspects, but only on what I thought was right or wrong. This is getting quite irritating, to be honest.
    Again, for clarity: nowhere am I making any assumption as to the legal aspects of the situation. In fact I have kept mentioning that I would love to hear about it, and was only providing my opinion as to whether this was right or not. Not whether this was legal or not.
    My central thesis, again, is that it isn’t right to force companies to open up. Let me quote myself:
    “I personally disagree that the protection applied to code shouldn’t apply to formats, because I put proprietary standards in the same basket as any IP protected by copyrights.”
    “I do think that companies shouldn’t be forced to open their format if they don’t want to. And customers who buy their product should know better if they want to export their creations.”
    I have provided many arguments to back this up, and I still haven’t seen anything in your message that backs the other side of the debate, so once again I invite you to be constructive and build your claim before attacking mine by rephrasing it incorrectly.
    Hope that clarifies :)

  • Greg

    Bruce this back-and-forth is getting irritating for the reader. If you send me your email address (through a comment I won’t publish) I’ll address the points in your latest comment, but for this blog discussion I choose to leave it at that.