Lattice Drops EULA Clause Forbidding FPGA Bitstream Reverse Engineering

Yesterday we reported that Lattice Semiconductor had inserted a clause that restricted the reverse engineering of bitstreams produced by their FPGA toolchains. Although not explicitly stated, it’s assumed that this was directed toward several projects over the past five years that have created fully open source toolchains by reverse engineering the bitstream protocols of the Lattice ICE40 and ECP5 FPGA architectures. Late yesterday Lattice made an announcement reversing course.

To the open source community, thank-you for pointing out a new bitstream usage restriction in the Lattice Propel license. We are excited about the community’s engagement with Lattice devices and our intent is to not hinder the creation of innovative open source FPGA tools.

It’s refreshing then to see this announcement from Lattice Semiconductor. Even more so is the unexpected turn of speed with which they have done so, within a couple of days of it being discovered by the open-source community. We report depressingly often on boneheaded legal moves from corporations intent on curbing open source uses of their products. This announcement from Lattice removes what was an admonition opposing open source toolchains, can we hope that the company will continue yesterday’s gesture and build a more lasting relationship with the open source community?

The underlying point to this story is that in the world of electronics there has long been an understanding that hardware hackers drive product innovation which will later lead to more sales. Texas Instruments would for years supply samples of exotic semiconductors to impecunious students for one example, and maybe you have a base-model Rigol oscilloscope with a tacitly-approved software hack that gives it an extra 50MHz of bandwidth for another.

We can only congratulate Lattice on their recognition that open source use of their products is beneficial for them, and wish that some of the other companies triggering similar stories would see the world in the same way. Try interacting more with your open source fans; they know and love your hardware more than the average user and embracing that could mean a windfall for you down the road.

Lattice Semiconductor Targets Bitstream Reverse Engineering In Latest Propel SDK License

The topic of reverse engineering is highly contentious at best when it comes to software and hardware development. Ever since the configuration protocol (bitstream) for Lattice Semiconductor’s iCE40 FPGAs was published in 2015 through reverse engineering efforts, there has been a silent war between proponents of open bitstream protocols and FPGA manufacturers, with the Lattice ECP5’s bitstream format having been largely reverse-engineered at this point.

Update: About eight hours after this article was published, Lattice Semiconductor issued a statement retracting the EULA language that banned bitstream reverse engineering. Please check out Hackaday’s article about this reversal.

Most recently, it appears that Lattice has fired a fresh shot across the bow of the open source projects. A recently discovered addition to the Propel SDK, which contains tools to program and debug Lattice devices, specifically references bitstream reverse engineering. When logged in with an account on the company’s website the user must agree to the Lattice Propel License Agreement for Lattice Propel 1.0 prior to download. That document includes the following language:

In particular, no right is granted hereunder […] (3) for reverse engineering a bitstream format or other signaling protocol of any Lattice Semiconductor Corporation programmable logic device.

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Reverse Engineering Silicon Logic

[Karsten Nohl] has recently joined the team on Flylogic’s blog. You may remember him as part of the team that reverse engineered the crypto in MiFare RFID chips. In his first post, he starts out with the basics of identifying logic cells. By studying the specific layout of the transistors you can reproduce the actual logic functions of the chip. The end of post holds a challenge for next week (pictured above). It has 34 transistors, 3 inputs, 2 outputs, and time variant behavior. Also, check out the Silicon Zoo which catalogs individual logic cells for identification.

Ruckingenur II: Reverse Engineering Video Game

[Zach Barth] has released Ruckingenur II, the game of reverse engineering. The latest in his Games for Engineers series, it is a full game with multiple levels and live action cut scenes. Set with a military theme, the goal is to reverse engineer enemy items. Pictured above is a lock to a weapons cache.

The pixelized style is consistent throughout. Even the cut scenes have the effect. The reverse engineering is fun enough to keep you interested while you learn. There is an in game help system that keeps you on track as well. Our only suggestion is that he get some better costumes next time!

Recon 2008 Recap

[Tiller Beauchamp] gave a presentation on applied reverse engineering in OS X at this year’s REcon, but he also attended many of the other talks and gives his take on the highlights of REcon 2008 in a guest post on the ZDNet blog, Zero Day.

One of the highlights for him was Neohapsis’s [Chris Smith] discussing virtual machines implementing code obfuscation. The method uses custom instructions and runtime interpreter, which can help make the task of reverse engineering markedly more difficult if implemented properly.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, [Beauchamp] noted [Gerardo Richarte]’s software reverse engineering tools that decompile and recompile software in iterative portions. This allows the recompiled software to be tested piece by piece. Be sure to read his post and see what you missed.