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Samuelson Law, Technology and Public Policy Clinic
 Chilling Effects Clearinghouse > Reverse Engineering > Frequently Asked Questions > What stages are involved in the reverse engineerin...? Printer-friendly version
Question: What stages are involved in the reverse engineering process?

Answer: Since the reverse engineering process can be time-consuming and expensive, reverse engineers generally consider whether the financial risk of such an endeavor is preferable to purchasing or licensing the information from the original manufacturer, if possible.

In order to reverse engineer a product or component of a system, engineers and researchers generally follow the following four-stage process:

  • Identifying the product or component which will be reverse engineered
  • Observing or disassembling the information documenting how the original product works
  • Implementing the technical data generated by reverse engineering in a replica or modified version of the original
  • Creating a new product (and, perhaps, introducing it into the market)

In the first stage in the process, sometimes called "prescreening," reverse engineers determine the candidate product for their project. Potential candidates for such a project include singular items, parts, components, units, subassemblies, some of which may contain many smaller parts sold as a single entity.

The second stage, disassembly or decompilation of the original product, is the most time-consuming aspect of the project. In this stage, reverse engineers attempt to construct a characterization of the system by accumulating all of the technical data and instructions of how the product works.

In the third stage of reverse engineering, reverse engineers try to verify that the data generated by disassembly or decompilation is an accurate reconstruction the original system. Engineers verify the accuracy and validity of their designs by testing the system, creating prototypes, and experimenting with the results.

The final stage of the reverse engineering process is the introduction of a new product into the marketplace. These new products are often innovations of the original product with competitive designs, features, or capabilities. These products may also be adaptations of the original product for use with other integrated systems, such as different platforms of computer operating systems.

Often different groups of engineers perform each step separately, using only documents to exchange the information learned at each step. This is to prevent duplication of the original technology, which may violate copyright. By contrast, reverse engineering creates a different implementation with the same functionality.

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