Patent Law 101

A patent, he says, "doesn't give you the right to do anything - it only excludes others from doing something." This is a subtle distinction, Beyer adds, but one that is crucial at a later date when you decide to sue the party of the second part for patent infringement.

Which brings the discussion around to the patenting of a particular technology and de facto industry standards. Beyer says it's only the naïve who think that a company is pursuing "World Peace" by offering to let their technology be open sourced and declared an industry standard. In fact, he says, as soon as a company's IP becomes the standard, as soon as everybody else starts to produce product that is compliant with that standard, all of those compliance-seeking product producers now must pay royalties of some sort to the company who's technology as been 'chosen' as the standard - if that company owns a patent on the technology.

That may be obvious to most, but not to everyone, according to Beyer. A plethora of patent infringement law suits have arisen out of the situation where a company is designing product "compatible with industry standards" and either didn't know or "forgot" to seek out those who hold the patent on the standard - seek them out, that is, and offer to pay the appropriate royalties.

And there's even more to the labyrinthine world of patent holders, according to Beyer, and those are the strategies behind suit and counter-suit. He says, "In the semiconductor industry, everybody's infringing a bit on everybody else's patent." Beyer suggests a scenario where patent holders - and the corporate entities they work for - engage their competitors in a conversation that goes something like this:

"If you sue me, I'll sue you. I've got my pile of patents and you've got your pile of patents. I could sue you for patent infringement on X number of my patents, but I know you'd then turn around and sue me for patent infringement on Y number of your patents. So we'll just split the difference - I'll pay you some money for my infringements, and then you pay me some money for yours. Our lawyers and your lawyers will talk - they'll figure out the appropriate amounts. And then, we can continue to co-exist."

So, perhaps the naïve among us are right after all. All of this to-doing over patents - patents applications, legal fees, prosecutions, infringements, litigations - is indeed about "World Peace" if a patent, or a pile of patents, helps to promote "mutual respect" between fierce combatants vying for commercial dominance on the battlefield of high-tech competition.

Beyer confirms that there are two industries that are widely known for their litigious business practices. One, he says, is the medical devices industry. There are lots of small companies in that industry and it's fairly easy to tweak a minor feature on a device and prove that the result isn't infringing on someone else's patent.

Not surprisingly, the other industry notorious for its litigation is EDA. Per Beyer, it's fairly easy to tweak an algorithm just a tad, one that's buried deep in code, and prove that the "new" algorithm is sufficiently different from the "old" algorithm to disallow claims of patent infringement. Again, for anybody familiar with the EDA industry, this is not news.

Finally, it's clear from talking to Beyer that, from the hard-working examiner in the U.S. Patent Office to the savvy corporate executive who knows enough to threaten suit against somebody who's "nudging" up against a company's patent - there are lots of players in this game. It's an interesting game, a fascinating game to observe, and definitely not one for the faint of heart.

Industry News - Tools & IP

Agilent Technologies Inc. announced that BAE Systems has selected Agilent to provide a comprehensive package of RF and microwave EDA software, support, and on-site consulting. The company says its Advanced Design System (ADS) EDA software will help streamline design processes and improve productivity in BAE Systems' RF and microwave-module and MMIC (monolithic microwave integrated circuit) development for communications and aerospace and defense applications. BAE Systems designs, manufactures and supports military aircraft, surface ships, submarines, space systems, radar, avionics, communications, electronics, guided weapon systems, and other defense products.

Meanwhile, austriamicrosystems announced an enhanced product design kit (HIT-Kit) for linking austriamicrosystems RF process technologies with Agilent's RF Design Environment (RFDE). The company says the HIT-Kit will help speed the development of the Radio Frequency ICs used in wireless communication applications, including Bluetooth and mobile phones. HIT-Kit version 3.50 supports both the BiCMOS and the SiGe versions of the austriamicrosystems 0.35-micron technology node, which are modular extensions of the 0.35-micron mixed-signal CMOS baseline process licensed from TSMC. Analog Design Automation, Inc. (ADA) announced the release of Creative Genius v2 and IP Explorer v2, which the company describes as high-capacity optimization tools for designers of analog, mixed-signal and custom ICs. Creative Genius v2 can optimize up to 200 devices across 60 environmental and manufacturing variations, with 30+ performance goals. IP Explorer v2 is a performance tradeoff analysis tool that allows multi-dimensional visualization of multiple circuit solutions, which allows analog designers to compare circuit performance.

Aptix Corp. announced a demonstration of the ARM926EJ-S microprocessor core PrimeXsys Platform on an Aptix Software Integration Station, running multimedia applications at multi-megahertz speeds with the AMBA Multi-layer AHB bus. The demonstration was developed by STMicroelectronics. The company says the demonstration reflects the use of Aptix technology with ST Microelectronics in their development of the recently introduced Nomadik chipsets for multimedia and wireless applications, based on the ARM PrimeXsys Platform. The PrimeXsys Platform is based around the ARM926EJ-S microprocessor core, which incorporates ARM Jazelle technology for Java acceleration, an AMBA multi-layer AHB bus, and PrimeCell peripherals.

Artisan Components, Inc. and iRoC Technologies Corp. announced that iRoC has added support for Artisan's Process Perfect memory generators to its M-RoCKIT platform. Users of Artisan's memory generators, which automate the development of simulation and artwork views for single- and dual-port SRAMs and single- and two-port register files in SoC designs, can use the iRoC platform to design error correction code (ECC) while building hardened memory subsystems. Users specify details of required memory instances, and simulation and artwork views are generated. The M-RoCKIT architecture allows designers to protect memories within prescribed time, area, and power limits.

Axis Systems, Inc. announced XoC for hardware and software verification for embedded vertical markets. Initially, XoC will be targeted at the ARM-based SoC design market. XoC includes a co-verification debugger that helps create a common communication environment between hardware and software teams, and makes it possible for software designers to verify code functionality, before silicon, without having to learn hardware verification methodologies.

ARM - It's been a busy week for the company, starting with an announcement of the availability of the AMBA 2 Transfer-Layer SystemC interface specification, which is the result of a collaboration involving ARM, Synopsys, Inc., Cadence Design Systems and CoWare Inc. that is intended to deliver a standard for connecting system-level design IP endorsed by design tool and IP providers. The new methodology will allow designers to use IP built according to the interface specification for the exploration of AMBA methodology-based SoC architectures. In developing the specification, ARM says it has also received feedback from other partners including Mentor Graphics, Motorola, Philips Semiconductor and Verisity to encourage broad industry endorsements for wide adoption of the new standard. Testimonials from Synopsys, Cadence, and CoWare accompanied the announcement.

Meanwhile, ARM and Synopsys, Inc. announced the availability of the ARM-Synopsys Reference Methodology as a part of all ARM synthesizable cores. The companies say that the methodology streamlines the process used by ARM Partners to port synthesizable ARM microprocessor cores to a specific technology, and to harden and model a core. The ARM11, ARM7, ARM9E, ARM10E, and ARM11 families have now been upgraded to include the new methodology. The ARM-Synopsys Reference Methodology includes Synopsys' RTL-to-GDSII tool flow.

Also from Synopsys - the company announced the addition of comprehensive test automation features for core-based designs to DFT Compiler SoCBIST, which is a component of the Galaxy Design Platform. The company says its SoC test solution comes with industry support from ARM, Agilent and STMicroelectronics and is based on the IEEE P1450.6 Core Test Language (CTL) standard. Additionally, Synopsys announced that the ARM-Synopsys Reference Methodology now includes Synopsys' SoC test solution for use with ARM IP core-based design flows.

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