Many people have only negative perceptions of reverse engineering (RE), but RE can offer many benefits, including IP protection.
Law comes to the valley
The Semiconductor Chip Protection Act (SCPA) of 1984 regulated unlicensed second-sourcing involving direct copying of the mask layout of a semiconductor device. This legal concept was quickly adopted in most industrialized countries. After 1984, direct copying of an entire IC layout for the purpose of unauthorized second sourcing was termed as "chip piracy," and the act was called "slavish copying." The practice was subsequently stopped by the new law. However, semiconductor companies were still permitted to reproduce a competitor's protected layout for the purpose of analyzing it or even creating a second mask-work that had substantial similarities to the first.
Dedicated RE firms appeared in the late 80s and aided semiconductor companies in generating second-source products, but they were not the ones actually doing it. Sometimes, semiconductor companies purchased analysis reports from RE firms and used the knowledge gained for the purpose of second-sourcing. On other occasions, RE service firms captured full chip schematics and other details of manufacturing technology on their own initiative. This was likely done in anticipation of a new product generating strong interest as a result of new features, functions, or applied technology. Even so, such activity could not be construed as unethical, let alone illegal, as long as the product sample was obtained legitimately and the knowledge gained from the public domain was used for the purpose of learning, within the spirit of the SCPA.
Going one step further, let us assume that a circuit schematic of a semiconductor device is reverse-engineered by an RE company. Subsequently, this information is purchased by a semiconductor company. The RE firm providing the circuit is informed that the schematic diagram is being purchased to create a copy of a competitor's mask work for the purpose of study and analysis. Such analysis performed by the semiconductor company qualifies under SCPA as valid RE, not plagiarism or piracy. How then could this work, including the indirect role of the RE firm, be labeled unethical, even in this rather extreme case?
While the SCPA was a major milestone in the semiconductor business, many experts in the legal field question its effectiveness based upon the very low number of litigation cases that followed in subsequent decades. They argue that, aside from the deterrence of SCPA statues, other factors contributed just as much, if not more, to the decline of chip piracy and other forms of second sourcing. Increased complexity of technology is certainly one of the prime factors. Consider a 28nm processor having a cross-section similar to the one shown in Figure 2.
Figure 2. Cross-section of a 28nm processor
(Click here to see a larger image.)
Just capturing a 100µm by 100µm area of the metal interconnect layers of a 5mm x 7mm die having twelve interconnect layers in a flat GDS file format would require about three years using a single scanning electron microscope. This represents only a tiny fraction of the entire die. Pirating such products is clearly not practical. However, searching for specific patent violations associated with semiconductor devices of any complexity using RE is.
Added factors diminishing the appeal of second sourcing were the availability of ample manufacturing capacity from the prime source, shorter product life cycles, and a continuously increasing level of integration of multiple circuit functions. The combined effect of all these is that RE activity related to chip piracy is no longer practiced, and second-sourcing in general has gradually diminished.
Reverse engineering services to the fore
RE firms provide valuable and legitimate service and deserve a fair assessment. RE services are in high demand in today's fast-paced, high-tech multinational environment. Free trade and international diffusion of technology diminishes national monopolies over scientific know-how as we ship high-tech products and associated IP buried within them to various industrialized countries. Wide use of the Internet has dramatically improved worldwide access to information in science and engineering and has increased the vulnerability of intellectual property. In this highly accelerated and competitive environment, RE has become an essential aspect of both product development and IP protection. Technology developers are requiring more RE, not less.
One source of negative perceptions with respect to RE as a business is the perceived lack of creative content associated with the work. True, practicing career IP analysts don't design glamorous circuits and products like smartphones and don't generate large numbers of patents. They don't write software for fashionable consumer gadgets. But they do write software for tools intended to improve the productivity of their work, hence reducing the cost of services they provide to customers.
RE engineers also apply their creativity to finding patent violations in a memory cell buried deep inside a 22nm 12-layer processor having billions of transistors on a single chip. They analyze intricate structures at a nanometer scale. They're doing hard work of great value to their customers. Only a very few RE service providers offer all the requisite talents, experience, and dedicated equipment for this valuable work.
In today's complex, multinational, industrial infrastructure, technology diffusion occurs in many ways. RE service companies uncover indispensable public domain knowledge about products and technologies from the world's industrial centers. They also help protect their customers' IP in the US and elsewhere. RE helps ensure that products remain competitive worldwide in terms of both technology and time-to-market. There is no credible forward engineering advancement without the help of reverse engineering. Let's think of it in a fresh way and respect what RE brings to the game.
About the author
Lajos (Louis) Burgyan is Technical Adviser with LTEC-USA, the foremost and largest circuits, systems, and intellectual property analysis firm in Japan, with offices in San Jose, California.