First, some notes people have written recently on trouble they've had with Software Patents:
In the US: Proposal: An Independent Inventor Defense Against Software Patents
In the EU: Saxon Diaries - Patents: an Open Letter to my MP
Next, some counter-intuitive and confusing info I found on IP protection, reverse-engineering and infringement:
Related to the Windows-vs-Samba server issue (From http://www.advogato.org/article/302.html):
4) follow the interoperability / rev-eng guidelines. in the EU, as mentioned above, the laws are that you can only rev-eng for interoperability only, where info is not available by any other means [i assume that this excludes microsoft's NT source code license - available at $1m per year - because it is a read-only license...]
So, as I was saying, Reverse Engg is illegal for most things unless:
1) The Patent has expired
2) It is software and you are rev-engging it for “inter-op” and your rev-engg was “legal” – definitely a gray area
3) Freedom of Speech – again a big loop hole
Legality of reverse engineering (From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reverse_engineering#Legality)
In the United States and many other countries, even if an artifact or process is protected by trade secrets, reverse-engineering the artifact or process is often lawful as long as it is obtained legitimately. Patents, on the other hand, need a public disclosure of an invention, and therefore, patented items do not necessarily have to be reverse-engineered to be studied. One common motivation of reverse engineers is to determine whether a competitor's product contains patent infringements or copyright infringements.
Reverse engineering software or hardware systems which is done for the purposes of interoperability (for example, to support undocumented file formats or undocumented hardware peripherals) is mostly believed to be legal, though patent owners often contest this and attempt to stifle any reverse engineering of their products for any reason.
For the curious and if you have a lot of time on your hands (I don't):
- Here's a lengthy treatment of the subject - The Law and Economics of Reverse Engineering.
- Some notable cases - http://cyber.law.harvard.edu/wseltzer/Techreg:_Syllabus.
- Any reference to copyrights and patents is incomplete without the famous DVD DRM case - US court: Reverse engineering is 'presumptively legal'.