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Reverse Engineering: Is it legal?

Unfortunately, there is no universal definitive or straightforward answer this question and, as the relevant law is constantly changing in many countries, it is essential that anyone thinking of reverse engineering any product should consult an Patent Attorney before commencing any work.

Having stated that, reverse engineering in the majority of countries is still a legally accepted industrial practice and is one of the few legal ways of obtaining trade secrets.

However, the actual legality of reverse engineering depends on:

  • the laws of the country where the reverse engineering is conducted;
  • the type of product reverse engineered (e.g. hardware/software);
  • any restrictive purchase or licence conditions of the product;
  • how the product was obtained;
  • how the reverse engineering is carried out;
  • who carries out the reverse engineering;
  • why the reverse engineering was done; and
  • what use the results of the reverse engineering are put to.

There is a constant debate on the ethics of the reverse engineering ("RE") process between the extremes of some original product manufacturers who believe they should have absolute rights on their technology forever and liken RE to industrial espionage, and the total free-market believers who feel all intellectual property rights are a unnecessary barrier to free trade and human progress.

As outlined earlier, reverse engineering can be very problematical and so product developers should always take good legal advice in the country where they are proposing to carry out any reverse engineering activity and, if the reverse engineering is judged to be legal, always implement a lawyer-approved reverse-engineering methodology.

As there are many benefits to reverse engineering any competitor's product, every designer should consider it as a powerful design tool and always try to find legal ways of doing it.