Before Chinese memory upstarts like Tsinghua Unigroup face off with Samsung, Hynix and Micron in the marketplace, they will likely be battling them in court.
It is a largely unchallenged assertion that Chinese firms will in the not so distant future become a force in semiconductor memory market. With its sights set on developing a domestic semiconductor manufacturing industry, the Chinese government is committed to pumping more than $160 billion into the industry over a decade, with much of that ticketed for memory startups. Tsinghua Unigroup alone announced plans to invest more than $50 billion in two massive fabs, and many more are under construction or on the drawing board.
Memory — particular DRAM — is still largely considered a commodity business. Though that it's really not true today, the prevailing wisdom holds that by throwing enough money around, China's memory startups can easily buy their way into the high-stakes memory chip game and immediately start competing with the industry's three big players — Samsung Electronics and sk Hynix of South Korea and Micron Technology of the U.S.
But before they stare down memory's Big Three in the marketplace, China's memory ventures — a list that includes Tsinghua and its subsidiary, Yangtze River Storage Technology (YRST), as well as Fujian Jinhua Integrated Circuit Co. (JHICC) and others — may face these adversaries in another venue: the courtroom.
"I don't see how they can [produce memory chips] without stepping on patents held by Samsung, Hynix and Micron," said Bill McClean, president and CEO of IC Insights, in a recent interview with EE Times.
Micron may have fired an early warning shot earlier this month. On Dec. 4, Micron filed a civil suit federal court in Northern California under the Defend Trade Secrets Act and civil provision of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act against against Taiwanese foundry United Microelectronics Corp. (UMC) and JHICC alleging theft of its trade secrets and other misconduct. A spokesman for Micron confirmed the filing and said "Micron aggressively protects its intellectual property worldwide and will use all available legal options to remedy any misappropriation."
While this particular case smacks to McClean of industrial espionage, he believes the real high-stakes lawsuits will come when JHICC and other Chinese companies start marketing chips. Once they begin producing chips, Samsung, Hynix and Micron will have a chance to examine them to look for evidence that their patents are being infringed, he said.
"When they start producing, then they will have product to look at," McClean said. "That's when the real fun will begin. The lawyers are going to have a field day."
For example, Yangtzee is reportedly moving quickly to develop 3D NAND flash, the state-of-the-art technology which established vendors led by Samsung are ramping up now. McClean doesn't know how this could be done without running afoul of patents held by the established players. "I think it's just about impossible for anyone to produce 3D NAND without stepping on some of their patents," he said.
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