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Semi industry sees rise in patent lawsuits

Posted: 14 Sep 2007 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:semiconductor industry? patent lawsuits? technology patents?

Many executives and engineers, who know and understand the constantly changing patent landscape of the semiconductor industry, are in a unique position. They sit atop it all, able to see their company in relation to others, aware of what everybody is doing and where best to go to protect and enhance the value of their company.

Patent litigation in the semiconductor world, over the last 10 years, has been rampant. It takes a detailed scorecard to determine how many suits have been brought about and who all has sued or been sued.

In the United States, almost 900 patent lawsuits involving the semiconductor industry have been filed in Federal District Courts since 1997. Indeed, there have been more suits filed halfway through 2007 (53 suits in all) than were filed in all of 1997. In the last 10 years, suits have more than doubled.

Regular litigants
As one would think, many different companies have been involved in all these suits. Nevertheless, there are some regulars: Intel (involved some 6.5 percent of the time); Broadcom Corp. (3.6 percent); Texas Instruments Inc. (3.4 percent); Samsung Semiconductor Inc. (2.5 percent); LSI Corp. (2.3 percent); and International Rectifier Corp. (2.2 percent). Rounding out the cast are Applied Materials Inc., Micron Technology Inc., STMicroelectronics and Atmel Corp., each of which have been involved in roughly 2 percent of these suits.

Intel has been involved in about eight cases a year since 1997, with the notable exceptions of 2005 (20 cases) and this year (zero cases). In 2003, Broadcom was involved in 10 cases, followed by seven the next year. Texas Instruments has seen a steady decline since it was involved in 13 cases in 1998.

In 2006, the top 10 companies involved in semiconductor litigation were, in descending order of frequency: Intel, Broadcom, Micron, Altera Corp., Analog Devices Inc., Amberwave Systems Corp., On Semiconductor Corp., Promos Technologies Inc., STMicroelectronics and LAM Research Corp.

Halfway through 2007, the big names, in descending order, in the litigation arena have been: Atmel Corp., Microsemi Corp., Fairchild Semiconductor International Inc., Monolithic Power Systems Inc., Samsung Semiconductor, Renesas Technology America Inc., Freescale Semiconductor Inc., Altera, JDS Uniphase Corp. and LSI Corp.

In general, efforts by large chip companies to enforce their patent rights has remained stable during the last two decades. In contrast, smaller chip-design firms have been quite litigious. To establish proprietary rights in niche markets, these firms have been said to be so bold as to legally enforce roughly four out of every 100 patents they own.

Outside litigants
While the majority of suits are between rivals, there has been a rather dramatic increase in suits brought by outside patent owners or non-rivals. These entities see a target within the industry and go after it with the goal of obtaining license revenue. Relatively well-known entities that come under this heading include Acacia Technology (more than 140 patents surrounding the "V- chip" technology used in TV parental-control systems); (patents surrounding buffering techniques used in video and audio streaming); Forgent Networks (U.S. Patent No. 4,698,672 involving JPEG compression said to bring in more than $105 million in licensing revenue); Neomagic Corp. (patents surrounding mobile-TV technologies); and Patriot Scientific (patents surrounding the design of advanced microprocessors, DSPs, embedded processors and system-on-chip devices).

In response, Patriot Scientific and TPL Group have formed Alliacense. This outfit has sent notice of alleged patent infringement to no fewer than 485 companies; at least 18 have already capitulated halfway through 2007.

U.S. patent courts
Almost half of the suits in the last decade have been filed in the Ninth Circuit, primarily in California courts. The Patent Local Rules in the Northern District of California and the physical location of many firms in the semiconductor industry help account for such filing statistics. The Fifth Circuit, with its pro-patentee Eastern District of Texas, has seen roughly 18 percent of the filings. Next is the Third Circuit, which includes Delaware, with 13 percent. The next circuit, the Fourth Circuit, drops dramatically, to around 4 percent.

In 2005, a whopping 97 percent of cases were filed in only two district courts: the Ninth Circuit (60 percent) and the Fifth Circuit (37 percent). In 2006, filings decreased to some extent, with the Ninth and Fifth Circuits coming in around 50 percent and 27 percent, respectively.

- Todd R. Miller
EE Times

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