Rambus hopes for the go-ahead to collect on licensing fee claims
In a very complex, but highly interesting legal battle over industrial property rights derived from a total of 10 patents, California company Rambus, Inc. has won a partial victory, which may permit it to collect licensing fees from memory manufacturers Hynix, Micron, Nanya and Samsung for particular SDRAM components.
The case has been running since 2005, when Rambus filed its initial legal complaints against Hynix, Infineon, Nanya and its joint venture Inotera. Later, Rambus expanded its complaint to include Samsung. Since Infineon has agreed to pay licensing fees and Micron has since acquired the share of Inotera that once belonged to Infineon, the above-mentioned companies are now affected by the claim.
Judge Ronald M. Whyte of the US District Court, Northern District of California in San Jose, who has already presided over other cases involving Rambus and Hynix, has now reached a number of decisions, which were preceded by a legally and technically interesting 42-page set of findings. According to the court findings, DDR2, DDR3, GDDR2, and GDDR4 SDRAM chips made by Hynix, Micron, Nanya and Samsung infringe claim 16 of Rambus patent 6,266,285, granted on July 24, 2001; where GDDR3 memory is concerned, only Hynix, Micron and Samsung are affected. Rambus had also filed complaints over patent infringements related to nine further US patents, but Judge Whyte denied them for the most part.
In the findings preceding his order, he very precisely spells out that Rambus, as the complainant, must provide substantial and clear evidence to support each individual case of alleged infringement. The document scrutinises the wording of the patents, as well as technical drawings of functional specifications of DDR2/3/4 SDRAM components in the minutest detail. Finally, Whyte views as demonstrated that claim 16 of US patent 6,266,285, regarding a write operation in memory chips with a special type of construction; namely, with internal registers and precisely defined time references between external clock cycles, as well as data, address, and command circuits, applies to the controversial memory chips. A long section of text, for instance, relates to clarifying the terms "request" and "command". In the text of its patent, Rambus spoke of a write "request", while the technical specifications of the defendant memory chip companies consistently refer to write "commands". Thus, lawyers for the defendant companies and an expert witness argue that the term "request" implies that the memory components may also refuse or not carry out the write "request", while "command" implies that the write command must be performed. In a previous decision, Judge Whyte had defined the precise term "memory device".
These examples show that for outsiders and laypeople it is nearly impossible to predict how such legal battles over patents will turn out – judgements too often hinge on the smallest details.
Since Judge Whyte’s ruling was made public, Rambus’ share prices have been steadily climbing. However, the amount of the licensing fees has yet to be decided; that proceeding will not begin until the first quarter of 2009. In other cases, as well as in out of court settlements, licensing fees have often fallen short of expectations.
Rambus may, however, face further problems with US antitrust authorities at the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). In this equally-protracted court case, the FTC initially limited the amount of licensing fees that Rambus was permitted to demand, but it later had to retract the limitation after Rambus filed a complaint with an appeals court. Now the FTC, in response, has given the legal spiral another twist with its own appeal to the US Supreme Court.