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Clean Room Design – B

Mar 20, 2015

Clean room design is usually employed as best practice, but not strictly required by law. In NEC Corp. v Intel Corp (1990), NEC sought declaratory judgment against Intel's charges that NEC's engineers simply copied the microcode of the 8086 processor in their NEC V20 clone. A US judge ruled that while the early, internal revisions of NEC's microcode were indeed a copyright violation, the later one, which actually went into NEC's product, although derived from the former, were sufficiently different that they could be considered free of copyright violations.

Case law

Interestingly enough, while NEC themselves did not follow a strict clean room approach in the development of their clone's microcode, during the trial, they hired an independent contractor who was only given access to specifications but ended up writing code that had certain similarities to both NEC's and Intel's code. From this evidence, the judge concluded that similarity in certain routines was a matter of functional constraints resulting from the compatibility requirements, and thus were likely free of a creative element. Although the clean room approach had been used as preventative measure in view of possible litigation before (e.g. in the Phoenix BIOS case), the NEC v. Intel case was the first time that the clean room argument was accepted in a US court trial. A related aspect worth mentioning here is that NEC did have a license for Intel's patents governing the 8086 processor.

Sony Computer Entertainment, Inc. v. Connectix Corporation was a 1999 lawsuit which established an important precedent in regard to reverse engineering. Sony sought damages for copyright infringement over Connectix’s Virtual Game Station emulator, alleging that its proprietary BIOS code had been copied into Connectix's product without permission. Sony won the initial judgment, but the ruling was overturned on appeal. Sony eventually purchased the rights to Virtual Game Station to prevent its further sale and development. This established a precedent addressing the legal implications of commercial reverse engineering efforts.

During production, Connectix unsuccessfully attempted a Chinese wall approach to reverse engineer the BIOS, so its engineers disassembled the object code directly. Connectix's successful appeal maintained that the direct disassembly and observation of proprietary code was necessary because there was no other way to determine its behavior. From the ruling:

Some works are closer to the core of intended copyright protection than others. Sony's BIOS lay at a distance from the core because it contains unprotected aspects that cannot be examined without copying. The court of appeal therefore accorded it a lower degree of protection than more traditional literary works.