The Digital Media Project



Martin Springer


TRU #31 of reverse engineering





Martin Springer

Affiliation/additional information:

Active Contributor, Luebeck, Germany

Date submitted:







Name of TRU

TRU of reverse engineering


Summary description of TRU

Reverse engineering means "the process of extracting know-how or knowledge from a human-made artifact". [...] "Human-made artifacts refers to objects that embody knowledge or know-how previously discovered by other people. Hence, the engineering required to uncover the knowledge is reverse engineering". [1]


Use records of TRU

Throughout history of mankind, people disassembled nature-made and human-made artifacts in order to understand their inner workings. Here are some examples of use [2]:

  • Education: to learn Operating System programming by disassembling an OS
  • Investigation of potential infringement: to reverse engineer a competitor's product in order to determine whether they have used some (copyrighted) code in their product.
  • Interoperability: to reverse engineer a media format in order to read the data and make an application using this data.
    • DeCSS: The Linux community had to use reverse engineered assembler code in order to build a Linux DVD player [3]
    • Universal Remote Control: A Remote Control manufacturer wants to provide a device which is able to control Consumer Electronic devices from different vendors, some of them are not produced anymore.
    • Preservation and Emulation: "Two freelance programmers have been working (independently) on reverse engineering the data file stored on the videodiscs in order to enable the data to be displayed on a 'modern' Windows-based system". [4]
  • Investigation of Cosumer Fraud: to detect violation of consumer rights (e.g. violation of privacy rights of computer users by "spyware")
  • Security Improvements: to understand insecure computer software in order to develop more trustworthy systems.


  Nature of TRU

Customary TRU if information about the objects under investigation is not available under fair and reasonable conditions. Partly supported by laws [1].


Benefits of TRU

Society benefits from the "Freedom to Tinker" [5], since without the possibility of the users to understand, discuss, repair and modify technical devices, only a few industry players would be in the position to advance the progress of technology.

Industry players trying to create monopolies by promoting proprietary standards and technology might be negatively affected.


Possible digital support

  • Decompilers/ Disassemblers



Sometimes reverse engineering is the only method to learn and understand about an undocumented technical object. In order to render it unnecessary, it is desirable that software and hardware documentation is available to the public, open standards are developed and published under fair and reasonable terms and the development of open source software is not prevented by software patents.

8. References [1] - The law & economics of reverse engineering, Samuelson, Scotchmer, 2002
[2] - Article 2B and Reverse Engineering, Kaner, 1998
[3] - Critique of DVD CCA's claims about DeCSS, Andreas Bogk, 2000
[4] - The Domesday Project, Andy Finney
[5] - Freedom to Tinker