Word of Dialog Information Service's suit against the American Chemical Society sent a shock wave through the online community. After the initial surprise, reaction turned to dismay that the longstanding feud between the two organizations had escalated to this new and far more dangerous level.
The dispute involves two industry giants that have stood preeminent in their respective realms since the beginnings of online. From its seminal role in creating online information retrieval to its present status as an industry leader, Dialog has been respected for its restless innovation and sense of mission as well as for its business success. The American Chemical Society (ACS) took on the arduous and complex task of automating the world's immense chemical literature, an achievement that arguably stands as the most important electronic database ever created.
Both organizations achieved their goals through extraordinary ambition, drive, and sense of purpose. But the same qualities that assured their success have contributed to the present ominous impasse. The two have long been joined in an arabesque relationship where they are united as partners and estranged as competitors. Each organization's singlemindedness has tilted this uneasy balance ever more toward damaging rivalry In turning to the courts, each side is bidding to bring grave harm to the other. It is a high stakes game that both may regret, and which may cause enduring distress both to themselves and to chemical information users.
PARTNERS AT THE START
In the 1970s the fruitful Dialog/ACS partnership made possible online searching of chemical literature, one of the first great landmarks in the online revolution. But the cooperation which made this possible was not free from discord. Fearing loss of revenue from the print Chemical Abstracts, the ACS did not license article abstracts to Dialog or any other distributor, a practice that other scientific database producers have never followed. Nor did the ACS feel that Dialog was cooperating adequately with them. jim Seals, Director of Marketing and Corporate Development for the Chemical Abstracts Service (CAS), explains that from the beginning Dialog would not release certain kinds of file usage data, including customer names, which CAS sought.
Dialog grew steadily throughout the 1970s and the CAS files were among its most heavily used databases. At decade's end Dialog was the world's largest supplier of online scientific and technical information, and gave every indication of expanding its market share. This very success, however, was a yellow warning light to the ACS.
As Jim Seals recounts, CAS was still having problems with Dialog, including differences over payments, when the prospect loomed of an online market dominated by a partner CAS perceived as uncooperative:
"We saw that Dialog was approaching a virtual monopoly on the distribution of our bibliographic information, and was by far the dominant force in the distribution of scientific and technical information online. We decided to go into the online business because we had to have a distribution channel."
The ACS' new channel was CAS ONLINE, which established ACS as a direct competitor to Dialog and severely strained their database producer/distributor relationship. CAS ONLINE offered two major advantages over Dialog. It made abstracts available online and also offered structure searching, a feature by which the structure of a chemical compound can be represented graphically.
CAS ONLINE's biggest drawback was being a single database service in an environment where the use of multiple databases is the norm. This spurred the evolution of STN International, a partnership between CAS and information firms in Germany and Japan. STN now has several dozen databases, including significant sci-tech files like BIOSIS, COMPENDEX, and MEDLINE.
STN prospered through the last half of the 80s. …