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Tim Lee on Reverse Engineering and Innovation

Tim Lee has (another) good post, Reverse Engineering and Innovation: Some Examples, over at the Technology Liberation Front. Tim uses three examples (IM, Samba, and x86 cpus) to make three points about the role of reverse engineering in innovation:

(1) “reverse-engineering to accomplish compatibility with a competitor’s closed, proprietary platform is utterly common in the technology world”

(2) “reverse engineering is plainly a pre-condition to innovation in many cases,” and

(3) “there’s no reason to think the existence of these competing products has reduced the incentive of AOL, Microsoft, or Intel to continue innovating themselves.”

1 thought on “Tim Lee on Reverse Engineering and Innovation”

  1. This reminds me of debate over the scope of derivative markets in copyright law. For example, do we want the owners of the Seinfeld copyright to be able to license (or block) unforeseen projects like the Seinfeld Aptitude Test, or do we want a more open policy on derivative works?

    I might quibble with Lee’s point 3; I think companies would be willing to invest more in fields where they knew that they could control all the applications that interoperated with their core application. But I also think that, as a matter of industrial policy, there’s no good reason to spur investment in such fields by setting rules that permit or encourage the capture of whole markets.

    I also think that policy might sensibly take as a desiderata a diversity of interoperating firms (as the French seem to think, too; see

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