The field of reverse engineering (RE) and the laws that regulate it have evolved over the years, and it has become a valuable, respectable, and ethical practice helping technology companies remain competitive.
This wasn't always the case. In the early years of the semiconductor industry, "chip piracy," as we call it today, became rampant. Chip piracy is "the process of copying the mask layout of another semiconductor company's product." This was only a small subset of RE activities practiced 30 or 40 years ago.
Reverse engineering... explained
Reverse engineering is a "process of extracting the knowledge or design blueprints from anything man made." RE is intimately linked to the process of learning, and it's been used since cave-dwelling humans created primitive tools for hunting. Their descendants later invented the wheel, created horse carriages, steam engines, and -- a little later -- deep sub-micron transistors. RE was legal back then (by default), and it is legal today. That is, semiconductor companies practicing RE, and RE service companies like LTEC, must conduct their RE activity within the framework of the law. The relatively few number of litigations associated with chip piracy during the last 30 years suggests that the vast majority of these activities are compliant. However, the behavior constituting proper and ethical business conduct in the continually evolving semiconductor industry is a far more debatable topic. Let's examine both the legality and ethics of RE from a historical perspective.
The rise of second sourcing
Today's definition of second source is "a company licensed to manufacture and sell components originally designed by another company (the first source)." Since a licensing agreement is implied, there is no reason to think there is anything illegal or unethical associated with such a mutually agreed upon arrangement. Even though this definition didn't exist back in the late 60s and early 70s, both second sourcing -- licensed or unauthorized -- and the RE associated with it were legal.
In November, 1965, Fairchild Semiconductor introduced Bob Widlar's hugely successful µA709 operational amplifier. This was an analog IC and the first to be (later) second-sourced. Intel's 4004 microprocessor, introduced in 1971, was second-sourced by National Semiconductor three years later. The era of second-sourcing semiconductor devices was taking off.
Having spent nearly forty years in the semiconductor industry, I was aware of corporate management initiating second-source projects without a licensing agreement or any other collaborative arrangement with the primary source. Sometimes, major IC customers requested second-source products to destroy a monopoly by the primary-source brand and create price pressure, to ensure uninterrupted component supply in case the primary source failed to deliver. Other times, the motivation was based upon prudent market research and ROI projections. In some cases, design flaws discovered in an otherwise popular device were the reason for creating a second source. All these approaches were perfectly legal.
There was one particular practice of second sourcing that, although legal, was not necessarily ethical. The process began by taking high-resolution photographs of a competitor's semiconductor die and literally copying the mask layout of the primary source product, line-by-line, with micron or sub-micron precision. Figure 1 below shows the die photo of a 1980's vintage integrated circuit with its metal layer removed to expose the inner details of its components.
Figure 1. Die photo of a vintage 1980s integrated circuit
with the metal layer removed
(Click here to see a larger image.)
The circuit schematic was traced, and then the transistor, resistor, capacitor, and metal interconnect dimensions were measured. Finally, a suitable manufacturing process selection was made based on cross-sectional analysis of each component type. The content of the competitor's data sheet was essentially copied, and test programs were written to support the data sheet limits, followed by a qualification process and eventual product release. This allowed bypassing the expensive, time-consuming R&D phase, dramatically reducing the cost of product development and the time required to produce it.
Applicable laws of the era didn't provide any protection for preventing mindless copying of the layout of a competitor's product. As a result, companies aggressively pursuing second-sourcing strategies were able to gain unfair advantages as their costs of development were a fraction of those associated with the devices fabricated by the primary source. The time-to-market of these second-source products was also much shorter. By the early eighties, second sourcing was clearly being seen as unfair competition. A new standard of conduct and new rules were required. And they came!
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