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I have a new product that serves the same purpose as my competitor's long-standing product. One thing I have considered doing is allowing my program to import document files created by their product in order to provide an easy way for users to migrate towards mine. Naturally, this would be done without the competitor's permission, as it goes against their interests.

I've seen this done before with office suite software (e.g. Open Office and Apple Pages can import MS Word documents), but I'm wondering if there are any concerns, legal or ethical, with me doing this.

I fully expect any answers will most likely fall under the "I am not a lawyer" clause, but it would be helpful to have a starting point for anything I would need to be aware of, or if I shouldn't need to worry.

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I did some further research into the matter and determined the following (although of course, I am not a lawyer).

Legal Concerns

The short answer is that it's perfectly legal. Reverse engineering software (and the files it creates) is ruled as fair use in the United States, as established by Sega v. Accolade. The case, and other legal matters relating to reverse engineering software, are described in great detail in this article from the Yale Law Journal (the part about software is on page 1608). Even if the output document were to be classified as a trade secret, reverse engineering trade secrets is also legal.

Wikipedia lists a number of projects, that legally use reverse engineering, specifically mentioning OpenOffice.org and others reverse engineering the Microsoft Office file formats. (Heck, Wikibooks even has the book Reverse Engineering/File Formats that gives you advice on how to do it). At the end of the day, the legal precedent would be that you are covered, although of course each legal situation is unique.

Ethical Concerns

As the Yale Law Journal article notes, not everybody is happy about reverse engineering software and some believe that it ought to be illegal. If the competitor sees it, they will probably be unhappy about the process since it might drive users from their product to yours and damage their sales. However, since that's the goal in the first place, that's probably not a concern.

It's possible that the company could see what you're doing as ethically wrong and give you all sorts of flak for converting their files. While we'd hope they would be professional about it, there's a small chance that you may have to deal with it. More likely though, they would implement the means for converting your documents if they thought you were a big enough concern. I wouldn't recommend converting their documents if you're not alright with them converting yours in return.

At the end of the day though, the choice is up to you and, like anything that involves other companies, there is an element of risk. While I believe that converting documents would be just fine and has a relatively low risk, each person will ultimately have to decide for themselves if they are alright with it.

  • I went to the Wikipedia entry for the Sega lawsuit and read it. It is my opinion that, if Sega brought that suit today, they would prevail under a provision of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act which prevents reverse engineering for the purpose of subverting "protection mechanisms" of the kind that Sega built into their games. Case law is just that: case law. It offers no guarantees that you'll get the same result in any subsequent lawsuit. But you're right; at the end of the day, it's your decision. – Robert Harvey Nov 1 '13 at 16:37
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There are a number of possible factors to consider:

  1. Does your competitor disallow reverse engineering of their technology? Is the prohibition in their license agreement? Do you have to agree to their license terms (or their website TOS) to get access to the materials you need to perform such reverse engineering?

  2. Will the company go after you? Is it worth the risk? Maybe it is, maybe it isn't.

  3. How will your customers and your competitor perceive this import? Do you position yourself as the David against the competing Goliath that sucks and blows at the same time, or do you take a more charitable position as merely being a competing, and complementary, product?

  4. How much does it go against your competitor's interest? Does it give you an unfair competitive advantage, or does it merely give you a chance to compete equally?

  • Regarding #1, the document files are viewable in a plain text editor and are easy enough to understand just by looking at it. Essentially, I would be using my own code to parse the strings within the file. Is that reverse engineering in the sense you are talking about? Also, are there any notable cases where a company has (or hasn't) gone after another for importing competing documents? And if they did, what was the legal basis? – Thunderforge Oct 31 '13 at 21:18
  • I wouldn't be able to give you legal advice; I'm not a lawyer. I suspect, however, that a lawyer would tell you the same thing: you roll the dice, and take your chances. Nobody here is going to tell you that it is risk free, but the risk may be small. Anecdotally, from what you've said, I don't think it's a big deal. – Robert Harvey Oct 31 '13 at 21:25
  • I understand that few (if any) of us on this site are lawyers, but I'm still confused about why importing documents would be grounds for having "the company go after you". What about it is wrong? I would expect there to be an answer that doesn't require a lawyer. – Thunderforge Oct 31 '13 at 21:32
  • I don't personally think there's anything wrong with it, based on the very general information you provide in your question, but that doesn't mean the other company won't have a problem with it. – Robert Harvey Oct 31 '13 at 21:35
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    @Thunderforge: one doesn't need grounds to try to impeade a competitor using whatever means are at hand. One simply needs means. In the case of lawsuits that basically consists of money and time. Even entirely frivolous lawsuits may be enough to stop some people. The fact that it got that far may be enough to drive off an competitor, even if the case is quashed before it comes before a judge. And after all, the horse may learn to sing... – jmoreno Nov 1 '13 at 5:44

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