When is reverse engineering OK?

Copyrights protect expressions of ideas, but not the ideas themselves. Anyone can write about two young lovers from different families and different backgrounds and not fear getting sued by the estates of William Shakespeare or Arthur Laurents or anyone who writes daytime TV movies. It is for this reason, that software can be reverse engineered to learn the ideas it embodies without violating the copyright, as long as the code is not copied and used commercially. The first lawsuit verdict that enforced this idea was Atari Games v. Nintendo in September 1992.

Nintendo tightly controlled access to its successful NES video game system and did not release the specifications for creating a game cartridge for the system. In order to produce a game for the system, companies had to pay a license fee to Nintendo and had to agree not to produce the licensed game for any other game system for two years. Incorporated into the Nintendo NES system was a computer program called 10NES that checked whether a particular game had been licensed. If not, the game was not allowed to run. Atari reverse engineered the 10NES program and created its own program called Rabbit for bypassing 10NES. Atari sued Nintendo for, among other things, unfair competitions and monopolistic practices. Nintendo countersued for, among other things, copyright infringement. The U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that the reverse engineering was perfectly legal. It also ruled that Atari infringed on Nintendo’s copyright when Atari created its own program based on Nintendo’s program. The decision by Judge Randall Rader reads as follows:

The district court assumed that reverse engineering (intermediate copying) was copyright infringementā€¦ This court disagrees. Atari did not violate Nintendo’s copyright by deprocessing computer chips in Atari’s rightful possession. Atari could lawfully deprocess Nintendo’s 10NES chips to learn their unprotected ideas and processes. This fair use did not give Atari more than the right to understand the 10NES program and to distinguish the protected from the unprotected elements of the 10NES program. Any copying beyond that necessary to understand the 10NES program was infringement. Atari could not use reverse engineering as an excuse to exploit commercially or otherwise misappropriate protected expression.

Key points about software copyrights

First, a copyright exists at the moment of creation. In other words, a work does not need to be published to have a copyright. The copyright does not need to be registered with the U.S. Copyright office. It is simply a right given to the person who created the work. The advantage of registering a copyright with the government is that you then have an official document proving your ownership, making it easier to win in court against someone who attempts to use your creation without your permission. Registration can be done any time after the work is created, but is required in order to initiate litigation. Winning a copyright infringement case in court, when the copyright is registered before the infringement took place or within 3 months of the publication of the work, can entitle you to get back your attorney fees as well as “statutory damages,” which essentially constitute financial punishment that is not based on the amount of money lost by the author due to the infringement. This is done to encourage people to register their copyrights and to deter people from stealing them.

As the owner of a copyright, you have the right to reproduce the work, enhance the work, distribute the work, and perform it or display it in public.

With software, the copyright gives protection to the source code and the binary code generated from the source code. In order to register a copyright, it is normally necessary to file a copy of the intellectual property being protected with the US Copyright Office as proof. Since most software contains valuable trade secrets (which we discuss in a later section) that would lose their value if presented to the public, the copyright office allows software source code to be submitted with major sections “redacted” or left out. In fact, only the first 25 and last 25 printed pages of source code need to be submitted, though there are no guidelines as to what constitutes “first” and “last” in something consisting of many independent files and a complex interconnect of routines.

Note that a copyright notice is not required in the code, except for registering the copyright.