Arik Hesseldahl

Recent Posts by Arik Hesseldahl

Who Isn't Rambus Suing at the ITC?

Shares in the perpetual patent litigation machine known as Rambus received a healthy boost yesterday on word that the International Trade Commission had taken up its patent complaint against a litany of technology companies.

Rambus, whose nominal specialty is designing ways for chips to pass data back and forth but which is better known for more than a decade of bitter legal battles, earlier this month filed a complaint with the ITC, saying that products from several companies contained chips that infringe on its patents.

As anyone who’s been paying attention to the numerous patent battles around smartphones knows, the ITC is generally seen as a fast track to a settlement of a patent dispute. Since federal courts are slow and litigation is expensive, companies often go to the ITC ostensibly to block the import of products found to infringe on patents. Since practically every technology product is built outside the U.S., sales of an infringing product can be subject to an exclusion order, the usual outcome when a violation is found.

What’s interesting is the wide range of companies that Rambus has named in its complaint: Hewlett-Packard, Cisco Systems, Nvidia, Broadcom, Seagate, Motorola, Garmin, Asus and Hitachi are among the better known ones. The full list contains 34 companies, including some subsidiaries.

Some of the patents involved in this complaint were the subject of a prior case that Rambus took to the ITC against Nvidia. The commission ruled the patents–known as the Barth family of patents–were valid and issued an exclusion order, prompting Nvidia to come to the table and sign a licensing agreement in August. Rambus is obviously looking for a similar outcome from Broadcom and Freescale, which it says are among those now infringing on the Barth patents.

Additionally there’s another set of patents known as the Dally family, which Rambus didn’t invent but to which it holds a license. The patents are owned by MIT and are based on the work of Bill Dally, a former MIT professor of electrical engineering who’s now at Stanford University. The patents had been licensed exclusively to a small private firm called Velio Communications, where Dally had been CTO and which was acquired by the chip maker LSI Logic in March of 2004.

In a twist that could happen only in the strange world that is patent law, Rambus acquired the exclusive license to Velio’s serial interface patents–the Dally family–in a separate deal in the waning months of 2003. The irony is that LSI is among those being sued for infringing on the Dally patents. Some M&A lawyers at LSI must be kicking themselves today.

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