Samsung Found Guilty of Infringing FinFET Technology Patents owned by the Korea Advanced Institute of Science & Technology
In the last week Samsung was found guilty of infringing patent 6,885,055 and ordered to pay a $400M fine to a South Korean university. Two other companies, GlobalFoundries and Qualcomm, were also found guilty, but Samsung is the only firm required to pay damages. Samsung was judged to have infringed on a patent belonging to the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST).
At its heart, the lawsuit is over a key patent tied to FinFETs — the three-dimensional transistor structures that replaced conventional bulk silicon beginning in 2012, when Intel launched its 22nm "Tri-Gate" FinFETs. But, as we've discussed before, every technology that makes a sudden and dramatic debut is actually the result of long periods of work and FinFETs are no exception. Early work on FinFETs was a partnership between KAIST and Wonkwang University. KAIST applied for a domestic patent in 2001, eventually extending that patent into an international version through its partnership with one of the key engineers that worked on the technology, Lee Jong-ho.
In 2012, when Intel unveiled its Tri-Gate transistors, KAIST apparently contacted the CPU manufacturer and negotiated a patent license agreement. Intel has paid over $9M to KAIST since it introduced FinFET technology. Negotiations with Samsung for a patent fell through, however, and the Korean electronics company has been building FinFET devices without one since it introduced the technology in 2015. Meanwhile, Samsung attempted to invalidate Lee's patent in the United States. When that failed, it attempted to prove that the patent should actually belong to a different institution altogether, arguing that the IP in question should belong to Kyungpook National University rather than to KAIST. This effort has also failed.
In a statement, Samsung said: "The FinFet technology we are using is our own technology developed by our employees and executives through studies. This is different from the FinFet technology on which KIP US claims to have patent rights." The company declined, however, to state exactly how its technology is different from KAIST's. Based on the judge's reading of the patent and Samsung's attempts to redefine the various terms of art, it's clear the courts aren't buying this distinction — and it's not at all clear they should.
The technology is crucial to the production of modern processors used in mobile phones. GlobalFoundries and Samsung manufacture chips using the technique. Qualcomm, the largest maker of chips used in phones, is a customer of both companies. The companies put on a joint defense.
As expected, Samsung's legal team's statement read: "We will consider all options to obtain an outcome that is reasonable, including an appeal."
KAIST's argument in the case boiled down to the nitty gritty of patent claims to the nth-degree as presented in their 2018 court filing presented below.
With the win for KAIST against Samsung under their belt, you have to wonder if TSMC and others using FinFET technology will be targeted next.
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