I have been disassembling a large software project on my own, as a hobby. It is an educational exercise and I have learned a lot in the process. That said, I feel that my progress would be considerably quicker if I was to collaborate on the project with other like-minded individuals.

Herein lies the problem -- maybe. I am reversing this software for personal interest and potentially (but unlikely; given the magnitude of the codebase in question) implementing an interoperable service to interact with this software, replacing the vendor's own service. My (very limited) understanding is that this particular use-case is protected under copyright law.

However, my wish is to collaborate with others freely on the Internet, in a similar system employed by open source projects: version control repositories of assembly files, wikis to coordinate and share knowledge, public mailing lists, et cetera. I have a feeling this may be iffy at best.

Is what I want to do blatantly illegal, a gray area or even legally defensible? Would the situation be any different if the collaboration was in private rather than public? If it has any bearing on the answer, I am located in Australia and the software vendor in located in the USA.

  • I would have also used a "reverse-engineering" tag or similar, but my reputation is not high enough to do so. My apologies. – Sedate Alien Oct 28 '10 at 2:59

Maybe read this http://lwn.net/Articles/134642/

I think reverse engineering is always a gray area legally. But that doesn't worry big corp, they will just use their lawyers to squash you legal or not if you are doing something they don't like. I think they key is to not make noise.

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    +1 It doesn't really matter if you'd be cleared by a court if you can't afford to go to court in the first place... – Dean Harding Oct 28 '10 at 5:24

I like to say that no answerers here will pay for your liabilities.

You must ask a lawyer.

My opinion: the risk is very limited since you are an individual of 21 year old, so probably without many assets. Suing you will be a waste of time and money since you won't be able to pay.

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    The RIAA and like have sued people with a lot less I am sure. – Chris Oct 28 '10 at 14:23
  • RIAA targets those with few resources to send a message and keep out of court, surely not turning a profit in their legal aggression. – Jé Queue Oct 28 '10 at 15:22

If you are not making money off of it, you are unlikely to be sued right away. The most likely result, if Big Corp find out about it and cares, is a cease and desist letter. Basically, telling you to stop what you are doing. At that point, you can decide if it is worth fighting to continue, or just stop (or go underground). If you ever get to the point where you want to start selling something, then you need legal advice to figure out what your options are.

  • "Start selling something"... legal advice or not this will not be tolerated. I cannot steal a baker's cookie recipe and start selling his cookies without potential legal repercussions. – Chris Oct 28 '10 at 14:26
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    @Chris The question in this case is about reverse engineering in order to interoperate with another system. It is not about stealing. This is still a legal gray area, but generally considered to be acceptable. And since you cannot copyright a recipe, you are perfectly able to to use someone else's recipe and sell cookies based on it. This happens all of the time in the restaurant industry, and is a good thing. See techdirt.com/articles/20100702/11365410062.shtml – KeithB Oct 28 '10 at 14:40
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    I think this proves how out of line copyright terminology has gotten. You cannot steal a physical copy of a recipe, or break into the baker's computer to find it. This is stealing. However, if you legitimately acquire a copy of the recipe, or reverse engineer it, you may compete openly with the baker. This is not stealing and before the world went into overzealous copyright mania it was generally known as healthy competition. – dsimcha Oct 28 '10 at 16:44

My limited understanding is that, in the US, reverse engineering for purposes of interoperability is perfectly legal. However, I'm not a lawyer and I doubt you are.

What you need to do is find a lawyer who specializes in this sort of thing and who works in your jurisdiction. In the US, it should be fairly easy to find one by going to your local Bar Association, and the first consultation is unlikely to be expensive.

Never accept legal advice from anybody who happens to post, usually from a potentially different place with potentially different laws, on the net.

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