This is the third year since Intel was involved in this big patent litigation. Between the chip giant Intel and the Institute of Microelectronics of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (IMECAS), this lawsuit requests 200 million yuan (about 31 million dollars) monetary compensation and may bring big trouble to Intel.
This patent war started in February 2018. IMECAS filed a complaint in the Beijing Municipal High People's Court, accusing Intel (China) Co., Ltd., alleging that Intel's 'Core' processors infringing the FinFET patent No. "201110240931.5" which is owned by the Chinese Academy of Sciences. IMECAS requested Intel to compensate at least 200 million yuan monetary damage plus litigation costs. At the same time, IMECAS requested the court to ban the sale of Intel's "Core" family of processors in China.
For the chip giant Intel, if it loses this lawsuit, not only its competitiveness in the Chinese market will be greatly affected, it also has to make certain compensations to its business partners in the Chinese market. It is worth mentioning that this lawsuit also listed Intel's two business partners Dell and JD as defendants. These two companies have also filed claims for compensation against Intel.
Why the FinFET patent owned by IMECAS is so important? What does it mean to Intel?
It is no exaggeration to say that semiconductor technology is the basis of modern electronic information technology, and integrated circuits are the cornerstone of the current information society. Many people have heard of "Moore's Law", named after Gordon Moore, one of the founders of Intel, which says that the number of transistors in a dense integrated circuit double about every 18 months. In other words, the performance of the processor doubles every two years.
When developing a new generation of processors, as the device size getting closer and closer to the physical limit, simply reducing the device size would not be enough. Many research institutes and semiconductor companies are trying to improve the design of transistor structures to continue Moore's law as much as possible. As the size of the transistor approaches the 22-nanometer node, FinFET has become the mainstream structure of semiconductor devices.
A fin field-effect transistor (FinFET) is a multigate device, which is a MOSFET (metal-oxide-semiconductor field-effect transistor) built on a substrate where the gate is placed on two, three, or four sides of the channel or wrapped around the channel, forming a double or even multi-gate structure. These devices have been given the generic name FinFET because the source/drain region forms fins on the silicon surface.
The first FinFET transistor type was called a "Depleted Lean-channel Transistor" or "DELTA" transistor, which was first fabricated in Japan. The potential of DELTA drew the attention of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which in 1997 awarded a contract to a research group at UC Berkeley to develop a deep sub-micron transistor based on DELTA technology. The group was led by Hisamoto along with TSMC's Chenming Hu. The team made several breakthroughs in FinFET technology between 1998 and 2004.
With the development of FinFET technology, the entire chip industry found its new direction. Intel began to use FinFET technology in 'Core' processors in 2011. TSMC and Samsung also used FinFET technology at 14nm node. At present, FinFET technology is the mainstream design in integrated circuits.
Based on Hisamoto and Chenming Hu's work, many scientific institutions and the semiconductor industry have made a lot of research and improvements on FinFET design. The FinFET patent owned by IMECAS is an important improvement to the FinFET technology.
The FinFET patent in dispute was filed in 2011, which discloses a semiconductor device structure, a manufacturing method for the same and a manufacturing method for fins of a semiconductor. The manufacturing method for the semiconductor device structure includes providing a semiconductor substrate; forming the fins on the semiconductor substrate along a first direction; forming gate lines on the semiconductor substrate along a second direction crossed with the first direction; forming dielectric side walls around the gate lines; and electrically isolating devices from one another in predetermined regions. The gate lines are intersected with the fins via gate dielectric layers, and gate electrodes of the corresponding unit devices are formed on isolated portions of the gate lines.
This FinFET patent claims a very broad protection scope. To a large extent, the FinFET technology used in Intel Core chips falls within the IMECAS patent protection scope.
Intel is one of the world's largest semiconductor giants. It owns enormous patents in the field of PC computer processors, servers and other equipment, and also has a strong market position in chip manufacturing. Although Samsung and TSMC have also made huge progress in chip manufacturing in recent years, Intel has represented the world's most advanced manufacturing technology for a long time. In 2011, Intel announced its FinFET mass production plan. In 2012, Intel widely used FinFET technology in 'Core' series processors.
If the FinFET patent owned by IMECAS found valid in China and the United States, and if Intel loses the infringement case, the manufacturing, licensing, and sale of Intel Core processors in China and the United States will all be infringements of the patent rights of IMECAS.
In February 2018, IMECAS brought Intel to court for patent infringement. In March 2018, Intel timely filed a request for invalidation of this patent with CNIPA (China National Intellectual Property Administration). However, CNIPA made a decision in January 2019, maintaining the patent valid. Intel failed its first challenge.
January 2020, Intel filed its second challenge against this patent in CNIPA, filing a request for invalidation. CNIPA made a decision in August 2020, declared that the patent was partially invalid. Intel made a success in invalidating claims 8, 10, and 14. However, claims 1-7, 9, and 11-13 were still valid. With a partially valid patent, IMECAS still has a strong infringement case against Intel.
It was also worth mentioning that, in this second invalidation process, CNIPA found the said claims invalid because of novelty issue. The key evidence that made the claims lose novelty was a patent also filed by IMECAS, which has an application date 3 months earlier than the FinFET patent in dispute. The inventors in the key evidence, Liang and Zhong, are also inventors of the FinFET patent in dispute. It means that, even if the claims were invalidated, the patent right of these technologies were still in the hand of IMECAS.
The patent battle between Intel and IMECAS was not entirely within the land of China. In fact, the fire of war has already burned into the United States. In September 2018 and March 2019, Intel filed two applications with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (hereinafter referred to as "USPTO") to invalidate the FinFET patent 9070719 (same patent family). However, to Intel's disappointment, USPTO rejected Intel's applications in March and September 2019 respectively, maintaining the validity of the IMECAS FinFET patent in the United States.
Intel also tried to initiate the Inter Partes review process in USPTO to attack the FinFET patent. However, the USPTO has refused to hear the case, leaving the dispute in the hands of the Chinese patent authorities.
In December 2020, Intel submitted an invalidation request for the FinFET patent in CNIPA for the third time. Intel provided several patent and non-patent documents to convince CNIPA that the FinFET patent should be invalidated. IMECAS also provided many counter-evidence materials, trying to prove that its patent can withstand the test. In August 2021, the reexamination board of CNIPA issued a decision, ruling that the IMECAS FinFET patent was valid.
IMECAS won again in this battle. After being repeatedly rejected by both Chinese and U.S. patent offices, Intel has been in an increasingly disadvantaged position in this patent litigation.
In the high-tech industry, the United States is undoubtedly the leading country in the world. Other than the U.S., China is the second strongest country in the field of microelectronics. IMECAS has profound strength in the field of FinFET patents. So far, IMECAS has submitted more than 5,000 Chinese patent applications, more than 500 foreign patent applications, 158 transfers of patents, and 1,505 patent licenses in the fields of integrated circuits, high-reliability devices and circuits, and Internet, etc. IMECAS is also world-famous for both the high amount and high patent quality. These patents cover the popular technical fields of integrated circuit manufacturing technology, such as fin field effect transistor (FinFET), high-k metal gate (HKMG), source-drain technology, etc. In recent years, IMECAS has obtained huge profits in patent operations and has become the pioneer of scientific research institutions on the road of patent monetization.
The 21st century is the era of the information industry, and lawsuits related to integrated circuit chips often involve extremely high compensation amounts. In 2020, the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology also had patent disputes with Samsung Electronics about FinFET technologies. In the Federal Court of Texas, Samsung Electronics lost the lawsuit and compensated 400 million US dollars.
The lawsuit between Intel and IMECAS about the FinFET patent has not yet ended. Intel's attempts to invalidate the patent have run up against a stone wall. It is possible for Intel to lose this infringement case, and it is also possible that Intel and IMECAS would reach a settlement.
If the two parties continue the litigation, it is possible for the court to find infringement established, and require Intel to execute the 200 million compensation requested by IMECAS plus the costs of litigation, and issue an injunction on the sale and distribution of Intel products in China. In addition, considering that Intel has made compensation promises to its business partners Dell and JD, Intel's actual loss is likely to far exceed 200 million.
It is worth mentioning that the IMECAS FinFET patent family has also been ruled valid in the United States. This means that IMECAS can also file a patent infringement lawsuit in the United States, and ask for compensation and injunctions.
Of course, it is also possible for Intel and IMECAS to reach a settlement, and Intel would pay for the patent license fee at a price acceptable to both parties. We will continue to pay attention to this case.
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