Reverse engineering means a method or process of developing or manufacturing a known product was discovered through “working backward”, such as taking apart, of the known product (Kewanee Oil Co. v. Bicron Corp., 416 U.S. 470 (1974)). Reverse engineering is often being used in machine development, software maintenance, and many other areas. Similar to other developing methods, reverse engineering can be beneficial but can also be spoiled. Other than reverse engineering to improve their own development, competitors may reverse engineer to create a similar product, or a knock-off, to steal a share of the market. For software, attackers may reverse engineer to find a weakness in the software, and through exploiting the vulnerabilities, the attackers can create malware.
Reverse engineering is generally legal. In trade secret law, similar to independent developing, reverse engineering is considered an allowed method to discover a trade secret. However, in patent law, because the patent owner has exclusive rights to use, own or develop the patent, reverse engineering is not a defense.
[Last updated in April of 2021 by the Wex Definitions Team]