New York, N.Y. — Monica Rivituso reports that last Tuesday was another bumpy day on the ‘Bus – Rambus, that is.
Shares of the semiconductor company fell 4% Tuesday after memory-chip maker Micron Technology (MU) filed a lawsuit alleging that Rambus violated federal antitrust laws and engaged in “illegal and anticompetitive acts” to acquire and control a certain memory technology called synchronous DRAM – the most common form of memory used in personal computers today. Micron, the largest U.S. maker of dynamic random access memory, or DRAM, chips also asserts that certain Rambus patent claims are invalid and nonenforceable.
In many ways, Micron’s move isn’t entirely unexpected. Rambus has been on a heavy-duty campaign to defend its patented technology – and to expand the reach of those patents. But now one of the largest memory-chip manufacturers in the world is calling some of Rambus’s patents into question. Whether other manufacturers follow Micron’s lead remains to be seen, but an important issue has been raised: are Rambus’s patents as broad as it claims?
It’s an important question to answer, because patents are what Rambus is all about. Often referred to as a “chipless” semiconductor company, Rambus doesn’t actually make any chips. Rather, as an intellectual-property company, it licenses designs to memory-chip makers. Its chief product is a technology that speeds up the data transfer rates for memory chips, something that Rambus is pushing to become the next memory standard. But so far, adoption of so-called Rambus DRAM, or RDRAM, has been slow going because the chips are more costly to produce and carry license fees.
Recently, Rambus stepped up protection of its patent portfolio by filing lawsuits against chip makers it claimed were using RDRAM without paying licensing fees. Thing is, these claims weren’t limited to RDRAM. Instead, Rambus maintained that portions of its technology were being used in more mainstream memory standards like synchronous DRAM, or SDRAM, and another type of memory called double data rate, or DDR.
And that’s where things get sticky. Rambus DRAM might not be setting the world on fire just yet, but supporters say it’s another thing if Rambus can lay some licensing claim to commonly used SDRAM.
So far, Rambus has inked a handful of SDRAM and DDR agreements, including one with Hitachi (HIT) and another with Toshiba. While Rambus believers maintain these agreements proved the company had a legitimate claim over the memory standards, others say the confidential agreements may not amount to much. Notably absent from Rambus’s string of freshly inked deals was one with Micron Technology.
In its lawsuit, Micron says Rambus cannot belatedly lay claim to any SDRAM technology. According to the filing, back in the 1990s both Rambus and Micron participated in a semiconductor-memory industry association that was developing open standards for SDRAM. Micron claims that in order to develop a “truly” open standard, members agreed to inform others in the group if they had any patents or patent applications in areas the association was covering. In addition, the filing states, members of this group agreed to license such patents to other association members free or at “reasonable” terms if the group adopted a standard that included any of those patents. Now, Micron’s claiming that Rambus “subverted the open-standards process” so it could obtain a monopoly over SDRAM technology and the SDRAM market.
“Rambus applied for patents that purported to cover the subject matter of the standards under development” by the industry association, the filing states. “Rambus breached its agreement to disclose any knowledge it had of such patents.”
Micron spokesman Grant Jones says that because Rambus has been “very aggressive” with its patent portfolio and has already filed suit against some companies, “we felt in the interest of our shareholders, our customers, the public and employees that this is really the best course of action to take.”
Rambus issued a statement, saying that it initiated negotiations with Micron to license Rambus’s intellectual property for SDRAM and DDR. “Rather than negotiate, Micron chose to litigate,” the company stated. Rambus expects to prevail in this litigation and to be fairly compensated for the use of its IP.” Rambus didn’t return calls for comment by press time.
As Rambus makes its rounds in the lawsuit department, did Micron feel that it was next in line? Hard to say. Micron’s Jones brushed off the question as something that could only be “pure speculation” at this point. But there is the argument that Micron is going on the offensive instead of sitting back and waiting for Rambus to show up on its doorstep with a complaint of its own. Even though Micron has a reputation for having a fine legal team, the Boise, Idaho, chip-making concern is still putting its neck on the line, says Jim Handy, a memory analyst at Dataquest.
“There is a possibility that having a Rambus license negotiated on good terms is going to be something that is of a lot of value in the future,” Handy said. “If they’re burning a bridge with Rambus, and if the Rambus interface becomes a very necessary part of Micron’s portfolio, then it’s going to sting Micron if Rambus elects not to overlook this during contract negotiations.”
Whenever the topic of Rambus comes up, another chip heavyweight, Intel, is sure to be discussed next. Intel has been a major proponent for RDRAM adoption since it got behind the technology four years ago. As memory makers have been slow to adopt RDRAM, there’s been some concern that Intel’s support would waver.
Enter the Pentium 4. Initially, Intel’s upcoming chip was supposed to support only RDRAM memory. But because Intel’s customers wanted the P4 to support less expensive memories, the chip giant decided to introduce another chipset next year that supports SDRAM and possibly DDR. While Intel denied this meant it was pulling back from its support of RDRAM, other market watchers weren’t so certain.
On Tuesday, Intel had little to say about the latest legal developments on the Rambus front, and dismissed the notion that the company had retreated from its support of the company’s technology. “We’re not a party to the litigation and as a matter of policy we do not comment on litigations between other companies,” said Intel spokesman Chuck Mulloy. “With respect to our position on Rambus, it continues to be the same. We still believe Rambus technology is the memory technology of choice for high-performance PC microprocessors. We haven’t changed our position at all.”
The latest developments in the Rambus saga rattled the shares Tuesday, but then again, this isn’t a stock for the faint of heart. Consider that at the beginning of the year, Rambus shares raced ahead 660% in two-and-a-half months. But Rambus is also known for rattling investors when it hits a pothole: On Tuesday, the stock fell 8% at one point, and it’s 40.2% off its 52-week high of $135 (though that still puts it up 378% year-to-date). Never mind that the current price assumes a fantastic P/E of 486. Rambus supporters tend to be diehards who hang on for the ride.
“Looks like another interesting day on the bus,” wrote one person on Raging Bull’s message board Tuesday morning. “Unfortunately, this will delay our trip to Pluto for a while. But once Micron drops its case or it is thrown out of court, we will resume our trek. Hope for the best!”
Ebullient investors aside, Micron has raised an issue that could linger. It might have some company, but then again, Micron might fight this battle on its own, says Dataquest’s Handy. Either way, the ‘Bus ride continues. Given this stock’s history, investors may want to fasten their seatbelts. For more information and analysis of companies and mutual funds, visit SmartMoney.com at http://www.smartmoney.com/ .