Publish at February 01 2023 Updated February 01 2023

Reverse engineering or authorized copying

Collage, copying, innovation, invention

Spider web on fence

Reverse engineering, copying the function or the mechanism of the function?

Reverse engineering refers us to an analysis of a system or an inspiration of a system. 

In Burkina Faso, a few years ago, I saw a crazy inventor who reinvented a weaving machine, an egg incubator, and lots of other useful objects for his clients. He took an existing function and recreated it with the means at hand, the possibilities of his country.

Is he really an inventor?

"An inventor (or an inventress) is a person who invents, that is, who is the first to have the idea of a new object, product, process, concept or technique; the inventor is to be distinguished from the innovator and the entrepreneur. In the particular case of the discovery of something buried in the ground or under a body of water, the inventor of that thing is the person who made the discovery."

Wikipedia source - Inventor:

No, he is not an inventor because the idea did not come from him. Is he an innovator or an entrepreneur? Is he then an innovator? Let's take a look:

"An innovator is a person who innovates, that is, who produces an innovation. He is therefore defined primarily by the nature of his contribution, which is new. He must be distinguished from an entrepreneur, who, without necessarily making a new contribution, acts on the world and also participates in transforming it."

Wikipedia source:

Apparently not either. What is it then? While searching, I came across this definition that seems pretty good even if it is hijacked.

"A photocopier, sometimes abbreviated to copier, or a photocopier, is a reprographic device for reproducing a document quickly and cheaply when the number of copies to be reproduced is relatively small."

Wikipedia source:

If we leave aside the cognitive bias of evaluating the copier as a bad person, while China considers the copier as the most respectful of a master's students and elsewhere if we dig, we will associate other faults and qualities with him. My mad inventor, in fact by definition, would be a copier. Reengineering would be contextually positive or negative.

I start with this topic, because, what is well stated, is well understood. But, here, there is no positive word to describe this action or the person who creates by this action. 

So, reverse engineering the form is copying. 

As a technology and social program designer, I don't like being copied. I even wrote a course for the HEG in Carouge about copyright, intellectual property and the consequences of copying.

My conclusion has always been that someone who copies your technology from the outside can only make a pale copy because that person does not have in mind the multiple levels of depth that are yours and that underlie the existence of your technology. But since our world is focused on the result, thus on the object and not on the process that created the object, even if your copier has created a sub-product, an ersatz of yours, the investor will not be able to tell the difference between your product and your copier's.

"A copycat is a startup that has copied a startup based in one country to expand into a new geographic market. Beyond the question of ethics and the image of the startup, which many of us do not care about, the question of the feasibility and sustainability of such a model arises. Is it really easy to set up a copycat? Does what works abroad always work here?

"Copying is what makes it possible to invent"

The first to enter the market has on average "only" 7% of the market once it has been consolidated.

I would not presume to judge, first of all because I am no one to do so. And because there's no shame in admitting that we don't all have brilliant ideas. And sometimes a little inspiration goes a long way. Just like in high school when you were looking at your neighbor's paper. Finally, because as Paul Valery said "it is by copying that we invent."

There are two forms of copycats. The copy/paste, which consists of imitating everything to the pixel (cf. the Samwer brothers) and the copy/modify, which is inspired by an idea and adapts it to a market, such as PriceMinister (copycat of by Pierre Kosciusko-Morizet."

Source: #Copycat: copying a start-up idea to succeed?

It's clear that pasting and therefore making "copycats" apart from being unethical is risky because every market is different. Copying is also adapting the final solution. It is more intelligent, but still not ethical for a penny. Then you have to see when you are in hyper innovation if it is not useful. Because when you open a market first, you lose a lot of energy evangelizing, changing habits, etc.

A lot of energy is a lot of money. Autodesk in the 2000's bought a new technology engine to replace their famous Autocad which was coming to the end of its life. When a business manager has to launch these new products on the market, which was my case around 2006, it's a total adventure, but it's a return over a very long period of time. And, new companies most of the time don't have the backbone to wait several months or even years to reach the level of adoption.

Sometimes getting copied can be quite smart, because it is the copier who will waste money and energy to get to the adoption level of our future customers. A company that is out of breath is often less sexy than a company that arrives fresh on the market, that has evaluated the shortcomings of the first mover and that in the end proposes more adapted solutions. So, nothing to despair about if you are copied, take advantage of it to bounce back and ultimately be the best. This is for the case where you have a copier who is of equal size with you. On the other hand, if it's a heavyweight in the competition or a genius who was passing by and makes your project their new diamond, you can change your product.

The copycat in the West doesn't get good press, but that doesn't mean they will be prosecuted for their actions. In Africa and the developing world, it's a little more complicated. We'll call it frugal intelligence, because, in fact, your products, if they copy them with the current economic conditions, in fact, they don't take market share from you because there are often no customers, your prices are too high. But the need is there anyway, so it's copying form or function with what you have.

So our copycat, it's going to be called that because it doesn't have a positive or constructive name. It would be nice to give him one someday. In the meantime, our copycat doesn't feel like a thief of ideas, but like a solution provider for his community. Which philosophically is very different. But, this still raises the issue of copyright. On the other hand, when you copy a patent and modify it, our capitalist system considers that it is not the same product. The blur is indeed present in the end.

Reverse engineering also means going to the guts of the products. I will take the example of nature. Nature that we can plunder, steal,... shamelessly because it has no lawyer, and almost no rights of speech.

"Biology has long been a science of discovering what exists. Conversely, biotechnology involves a process of creation, invention and innovation. In this sense, the UTC and the UPJV have created for more than 30 years new ways to implement biological functions, both to explain the behaviors of living systems but also to develop technological tools."

Source : Biotechnologies of Natural Resources (Biotech)-

Research on the fields of biology is all in fact reverse engineering. Our history of innovations puts words to things, actions, and it took several centuries to realize that biology is reverse engineering. It is important in our time to put words on this, because if I said that nature has no lawyer, in fact it is true almost everywhere except in the primary territories that are not very well explored where the pharmaceutical industry, for example, has filed abusive patents on thousand-year-old plant substances, as in Africa, India and Brazil. And, in recent years, measures have begun to be taken against what is known as biopiracy. In 2020, here is an excerpt from an article on biopiracy in Europe:

"The No Patents on Seeds coalition has released a report on new patent applications involving conventional plant and animal breeding methods. Under European patent law, these methods cannot be patented. Yet between the beginning of 2018 and the end of 2019, more than 100 patent applications involving conventional breeding were filed.

The report presents eleven typical examples of problematic patent applications on vegetables, beer and barley, and farm animals - some of which are also cases of biopiracy. These include applications on types of peppers originally harvested in Mexico, whose use in breeding could now be covered by a patent. Other examples include natural disease resistance found in wild basil plants, deep red musk melons or chicory that turns brown less quickly after harvest. The report mentions still other patent applications on spinach, corn, tomato, garlic, artichoke, eggplant, beet, broccoli, cassava, cauliflower, celery, cotton, potato and rice, as well as cattle, pigs, sheep, horses, goats, rabbits and poultry.

All of these patent applications are not for genetic engineering processes, but for conventional methods, resulting from random processes, crossing and selection. European patent law stipulates that the patenting of "non-technical" breeding methods is prohibited. However, legal chaos currently reigns at the European Patent Office (EPO), following decisions made by the Administrative Council and the Technical Board of Appeal in 2017 and 2018. Faced with its own legal contradictions, the EPO has suspended all new patent grants in the field of conventional breeding in 2019. Further decisions are expected in 2020."

Source: Eleven Reasons to Ban Plant and Animal Patents in Europe - April 29, 2020 -

In 2022, still biopiracy in the countries of the South: 

"The countries of the South are demanding that favored nations share the benefits of the biological resources extracted from their territories, used for medicinal, agricultural or industrial purposes. This issue of biopiracy is a major obstacle at the current COP15 negotiations on biodiversity.

In 2016, Indian ecofeminist and writer Vandana Shiva spoke at the University of Arizona's Global Institute of Sustainability and Innovation to explain what biopiracy is, presenting the case of seed patenting.

"A patent is the right of an inventor to exclude anyone else from making, using, selling, distributing what he or she has invented. The problem is that when it comes to seeds, they are not inventions," she said. "What happens is, 'You come to me and you take the seed. And then you patent it and say, 'I created it and now you pay me royalties.' That's biopiracy."

The bioresources found in wealthy countries-seeds, plants, animals and even chemical compounds-have long been natural resources extracted during colonization, when empires plundered the territories they occupied.

Patented and exported, these resources have enabled revolutionary discoveries in medicine, agriculture and even cosmetics. These advances would have been impossible without the traditional knowledge of local indigenous communities, who were often not recognized or compensated for it."

Source: Biopiracy: the South's fight against natural resource exploitation - 11.12.2022 -

The place of indigenous people remains a  problem of reverse engineering, as of copying, it is very close to the position of a project designer. In the same way, a designer will no longer be able to use his own invention that has been stolen from him when it is patented identically elsewhere, a community for example may have to pay royalties on beans that it has been planting for 2000 years.

And, this is not a theoretical case, an American one day goes to Mexico and stumbles upon beans not referenced in the American seed catalog. He patents them and in the months that follow all Mexican farmers by law are obliged to pay him royalties. I recommend the excellent documentary Les Pirates du Vivant by Marie Monique Robin which takes up this case among many others.

Imagine a world, no one knows what the world of tomorrow will be like: where researchers unravel the mystery, let's take a theoretical example, of how spiders make their spider webs and the spider protection society one day gets a bill to pay for all the spider webs in the world that have been made because the method is patented.

Ubiquitous you may ask? After reading this article, do you see the world differently?

Image source: Pixabay - JPlenio

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