Paradoxically, most reverse-engineering (RE) projects are undertaken by firms who own what they’re trying to reverse-engineer, often because it was acquired without the original designers, sometimes because the firm has lost the institutional memory to support it.
But some RE projects are specifically intended to, say, understand how to interoperate with a competitor’s equipment, in order to build and market a competing product or component.
This can often be accomplished without directly infringing anyone’s formal intellectual property rights. But a well-funded competitor will often litigate anyway. Maybe they can obtain a temporary injunction and cut off your revenue, if they point to persuasive grounds for suspecting infringement. Maybe they hope discovery will unearth some shortcut you took, such as making an infringing if temporary copy of software, or improperly obtaining a trade secret.
The moral is that successful RE needs a strong, documented process, good management, and the ability to fight off what will hopefully be nuisance litigation. The results are often well worth it, especially considering that the demands of RE are enough to deter most would-be competitors, and may leave the field entirely to you.