Reverse Engineering is Legitimated by Reason: Sega v. Accolade

This post was first published on 11th November, 2014.

In one of our recent posts on reverse engineering, we discussed fair use for intermediate copying. Today, we will look into another landmark case that legitimizes copying based on a justifiable reason! In Sega v. Accolade, Accolade used a two-step process to create video games compatible with the Sega Genesis game console.

The first step was to reverse engineer the system and create a development manual. Accolade purchased a Genesis video game console and three game cartridges. Then the system was wired up so that the data moving between the cartridge and the console during game play could be examined. The engineers retrieved the code from the cartridges, disassembled it and studied it.

Thereafter the engineers loaded a mix of their own code and modified code from the purchased cartridges onto the console and tested it until they discovered how to unlock the Genesis. Once it was successful with the reverse engineering process, Accolade created a development manual that incorporated the information about the requirements for a Genesis-compatible game. Though this manual did not contain the code of the Sega game, it did contain information related to the interface requirements.

The second step for Accolade was to use the development manual to create its own games for the Genesis. In 1990, Accolade released ‘Ishido’. This game was developed and released for the Macintosh and IBM PC. In 1991, Sega began manufacturing a new version of the Genesis console with which Ishido did not work.

Since Ishido was not working on the new Genesis, the engineers at Accolade embarked on a second round of reverse engineering. The engineers found a small piece of code that was ignored by the original Genesis. This code however was necessary to unlock the new Genesis.

Sega filed a claim of copyright infringement against Accolade for intermediate copying during their reverse engineering process. The District Court found for Sega, primarily because the acts of Accolade had resulted in lost sales for Sega. Further, there was an alternative form of coding possible, hence making the copying of source unnecessary. Accolade was ordered to recall all of its infringing games within 10 business days. On appeal, Accolade made four arguments relating to the copyright infringement claim: (1) intermediate copying is not infringement; (2) disassembly of object code to gain understanding of the ideas and functional concepts is lawful; (3) disassembly is authorized by the section which allows computer programs to be read into memory; and (4) disassembly in order to gain understanding of ideas and functional concepts is a fair use.

The first three arguments were dismissed by the Court, but the fourth one was accepted and dissolved the District Court’s order. The Court said that if reverse engineering allowed access to that part of the source code that was not a part of protection under copyright, then no infringement occurs if there is a legitimate reason for such copying.

Source: here

 Image: from here