Rambus smoking gun?
New evidence emerges in long running patent dispute over memory
For the last few years California-based Rambus Inc. have been chasing down memory manufacturers across the world and accusing them of infringing patents that it holds. The patents cover technology used in SDRAM and DDR memory chips, which between them make up the vast majority of the memory used in modern PCs. Now the boot seems to be on the other foot though, with a series of documents and e-mails uncovered by Hyundai's legal team suggesting that Rambus used its place on the Joint Electron Device Engineering Council to secretly patent technologies which later became industry standards.
According to Electronic News, who filed a motion with the US District Court in San Jose to have the documents released to the public, this was done "as part of a secret plan to take over the global DRAM intellectual property business". This new evidence certainly looks pretty damning at first glance, and could lead to a flurry of counter-claims from memory manufacturers which Rambus have previously taken to court or bullied into making out-of-court settlements over the issue. For example, in June 1992 (the year in which Rambus joined JEDEC) a Rambus document stated that "we believe that Sync DRAMs infringe on some claims in our filed patents; and that there are additional claims we can file for our patents that cover features of Sync DRAMs. Then we will be in a position to request patent licensing from any manufacturer of Sync DRAMs". In other words, Rambus kept their pending patents secret while sitting in on JEDEC meetings over a period of four years and watching an industry standard emerge which they knew would infringe their patents, and allegedly they even went as far as to add new ideas taken from the JEDEC meetings to these patents.
This seems to be a clear breach of the JEDEC rules, which Richard Crisp, then a senior executive at Rambus, spelled out for the company in an e-mail in December 1995. "The things we should not do are to not speak up when we know that there is a patent issue, to intentionally propose something as a standard and quietly have a patent in our back pocket we are keeping secret that is required to implement the standard and then stick it to them later". Ironically Richard Crisp went on to state in his e-mail that "I am unaware of us doing any of this or of any plans to do this".
Hyundai, who uncovered the documents in the first place as part of their fight against Rambus in the German courts, were understandably somewhat miffed at what they had discovered. "[The documents] clearly show that Rambus' business objective was to manipulate the JEDEC standards to claim patent coverage. Indeed, one document expressly states that Rambus' business objective 'depends on getting a standard which depends on our patents'. Rambus violated JEDEC rules to obtain the broad patent coverage by secretly amending its patent applications to cover ideas and technology discussed at JEDEC without disclosing this to the JEDEC members."
The case is also of great interest to JEDEC president John Kelly. "It's fair to say that evidence like that is very troubling", he is reported as saying. "I have heard from guys in the industry that they regard this as the smoking gun. It's a big case for Rambus and its competitors, but it's a big case for us too, because it really does focus on the standard-setting process. It is like an athletic competition or a card game or anything else where you have to assume that people are playing by the rules. If one side decides to violate the rules and does it in a way that is difficult to detect, it undermines everyone's confidence in the rules and in the game."
With memory manufacturing now a $30bn industry, and SDRAM and DDR memory between them making up more than 80% of this market, the stakes are certainly high for the companies involved. Expect this one to run and run...