Rambus, patents, and betrayal

Huge news on the Rambus front... The story that has everyone so riled up continues to unfold, as we see some intriguing developments this week. First up is Dean Kent's incisive analysis of the matter, which explains what's really going on here. Here's a bit on the patent dance:
Hitachi's assertions in this deposition were that Rambus had filed for a patent in 1990, then joined JEDEC in 1991 without disclosing the pending patent, against JEDEC membership guidelines. During the next four years, JEDEC members engaged in discussions about SDRAM, and how to ensure compatibility through common implementations. This information, Hitachi alleged, was used by Rambus to file continuations and divisionals against the original patents (again, without disclosing this information to JEDEC), thus guaranteeing that their patents would be violated by JEDEC members in their SDRAM implementations.
So Rambus plays ugly, in case you'd missed that. If you want to understand what all the hubbub is about Rambus, royalties, patents, and the like, this article is a must-read. Kent tempers some of the alarmist worries we've seen expressed over this issue, especially with regard to RAM prices, but he keeps it in proper perspective (this is still huge news). He's by no means convinced this fight is over; Micron, and probably others, will stand their ground:
Rambus has managed to invoke the ire of the entire memory industry and many consumers. DRDRAM will have some difficulty making significant inroads due to a portion of the market resisting it, just because it is Rambus who is pushing it. Manufacturers will be investigating workarounds for their SDRAM implementations in order to avoid paying royalties. . . . Though Rambus seems to have won these early battles, the war that is business lasts a long time, and now they may have made themselves a target as well.
Well put.

You may also want to see the documents from Hitachi's countersuit against Rambus (which is now dead), available here and here. (Thanks to Mr. Wilcox for all of the above links, though I found the first one myself first.)

Rambus's behavoir has made it friends all over the place, including Dr. John's call for a consumer boycott. However, Gulliver at Piecesparts, who oughta know about these things, tells me RDRAM prices keep dropping. Dunno what to make of that.

Anyhow, all of that is interesting background reading, but here's the real news: Hitachi's gonna wiggle outta the deal by merging with NEC. From the Seminconductor Business News (thanks, T.L.):

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. -- Hitachi Ltd.'s settlement of a patent dispute with Rambus Inc. requires the Japanese chip maker to pay royalties on fast synchronous DRAMs and double data rate (DDR) memories only through the end of this year. After Dec. 31, the marketing of those devices will be shifted to a new joint venture with NEC Corp., called NEC Hitachi Memories Inc.

Last week's licensing agreement between Hitachi and Rambus will not cover memories sold by the joint venture, said Avo Kanadjian, vice president of worldwide marketing at Rambus in Mountain View. "It covers the transition period, before the NEC and Hitachi joint DRAM venture becomes effective," he added.

Sneaky. So Hitachi's capitulation may not have been much more than a convenient way to get around a pesky lawsuit and get on with business. This news makes the scenario of a whole industry full of DRAM manufacturers falling like dominoes before Rambus's patent laywers sound much less imminent.

A little bird told me recently that Rambus was offering more favorable terms to companies willing to settle earlier, while threatening punitive licensing fees for settling (or losing in court) down the road. Rambus is playing for keeps. But it now looks like maybe the big boys in the memory business are also willing to play tough. Buckle up.

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