Background Note | HBS Case Collection | October 2010 (Revised May 2012)

Reverse Engineering, Learning, and Innovation

by Willy C. Shih


This background reading looks at reverse engineering in the context of piracy and knock-offs in emerging markets like China. It first considers legal aspects of reverse engineering in strong property rights regimes like the United States as a way of unpacking the legal issues. It considers the importance of tacit or unexposed knowledge, and whether modularizing a system facilitates the recovery of design intent. Finally we look at the role of reverse engineering in the development of capabilities and how it enhances a firm's absorptive capabilities. It is intended to be used as a background reading for the case "From Imitation to Innovation: Zongshen Industrial Group," HBS No. 610-057.

Keywords: Crime and Corruption; Learning; Engineering; Innovation and Invention; Intellectual Property; Knowledge Use and Leverage; Emerging Markets; China; United States;


Shih, Willy C. "Reverse Engineering, Learning, and Innovation." Harvard Business School Background Note 611-039, October 2010. (Revised May 2012.)