The recent move by Intel to take out patents on its next-generation chip technology may strike some observers as verging on the anticompetitive -- blocking other manufacturers from "cloning" its processors -- but industry observers say such intellectual property practices are an inevitable part of the semiconductor industry.
It emerged last week that Intel has taken out a variety of new patents on technology within the IA-64 processor architecture, due to make its debut in the Itanium chip in the first quarter of next year. The claims represent a broader approach than Intel's traditional legal strategy, patenting functions carried out by specific instructions.
The more specifically a function is described in a patent, the more difficult it is for competitors to duplicate the effect in their own products, according to experts. Legal analysts said Intel's intent appears to be to block competitors from making products similar to IA-64, which is ultimately intended to replace the x86 architecture upon which most PCs are based today.
The move highlights the increasing importance of software in microchips. Intel began patenting instructions with the Pentium MMX technology. It continued that policy with Streaming SIMD Extensions.
"It's a recognition that hardware operation goes along and is linked with the fundamental instruction set," said an Intel spokesman. "They are a product of the same development process, and both need to be protected."
Rival AMD has its own raft of patents, including those on its Lighting Data Transport (LDT) technology, which AMD freely licences in hopes of turning it into a standard. "You can't complain about somebody patenting their ideas," said an AMD spokesman. "We do exactly the same thing. We tend to be more open with it, but that is just because we choose to."
Glancing over the intellectual property lawsuits in which the semiconductor industry is currently mired, including Rambus' actions to garner licence fees for standard DRAM memory technology, one might think such extensive patenting is anticompetitive. But industry analysts say it's an inherent part of the industry.
"Having a patent isn't itself anticompetitive," said analyst Richard Gordon with industry analyst Dataquest. "It is just protecting your investment. The industry is full of patents. If a company is developing a new platform, and planning to base their future business on it, it is going to protect any IP [intellectual property] rolled up in that just as a matter of course."
The issue has become more pressing recently as AMD gains market share from Intel with its x86-compatible microprocessors and with the launch of Transmeta's Crusoe processors, also x86-compatible.
Transmeta has initially cut a deal with IBM to manufacture its chips, since IBM is legally protected from Intel by its own licences. Transmeta is seen as more vulnerable to legal attack: its low-power mobile chips are attacking a market segment crucial to Intel.
"The issue with Transmeta is they are targeting particular mobile applications, a market Intel can't afford to lose," Gordon said. "They are quite right to look at it and see if [Transmeta] is using any Intel IP."
Intel is in a particularly strong position legally, since it has been in the business for so long and owns so many patents. "At the end of the day, if Intel wanted to sue any microprocessor manufacturer, it probably could," said Gordon. "Going back into the mists of time, they probably do have a patent in a generic sense."
See Chips Central for daily hardware news, including interactive roadmaps for AMD, Intel and Transmeta.
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