Within the law.
To the Editor: The fifth paragraph of Michael Abrams' article "The Teardown Artist" (August 2006, page 38) quotes Dave Meeker as saying that reverse engineering is usually against the law. Quite the opposite.
If the product design you are reverse engineering is simply a trade secret, there is nothing to stop you from picking it apart and commercializing your own knock-off version. The author, Mr. Meeker, and all readers should be aware of the laws that govern trade secrets.
The Uniform Trade Secret Act (last amended in 1985) is a compact to harmonize state laws concerning trade secrets. Most states have entered this compact.
It took until 1996 for Congress to pass the first and only federal law concerning trade secrets, the Economic Espionage Act (18 USC 1831-1839).
Employers are required by these laws to take "reasonable precautions" to safeguard their information, and failure to do so will generally result in such information being denied trade secret status in most courts.
Both laws make explicit exemptions for reverse engineering, and using know-how gained from a previous employer to help a future employer. As long as you don't blatantly hand someone a formula, design, or process of another, you are 100 percent in the clear.
I had to be aware of these laws because I spent four years as a formulator for a small construction product company that sells products nationwide. These were finely powdered dry cement and gypsum products. Much of my job was to reverse-engineer products of major national brands. I never "stole" anything. I just made the closest knock-off humanly possible, often sending fractionated components to be analyzed using very sophisticated tests by a third-party lab.
Patent infringement is the single biggest concern when you reverse engineer with the intention of commercializing your knock-off.
Rocky River, Ohio