A U.S. appeals court has ruled on two patent lawsuits that pit Rambus against two competing DRAM makers, sending both cases back to district courts for reconsideration.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit vacated a lower court ruling requiring Hynix Semiconductor to pay Rambus damages and fees totaling US$397 million for the use of its patents in DRAM chips. That ruling, from the District Court for the Northern District of California, came in March 2009, nearly nine years after Hynix first filed an antitrust and fraud lawsuit against Rambus.
In the second case, the appeals court upheld a District Court ruling from Delaware that Rambus had destroyed evidence in a patent case brought by Micron Technology in 2000.
However, the appeals court vacated another ruling, also from Delaware, that 12 DRAM-related patents claimed by Rambus were unenforceable against Micron.
"We are very disappointed with the decisions in these cases," Thomas Lavelle, senior vice president and general counsel at Rambus, said in a statement. "We are hopeful when the district courts reconsider these decisions, they will find, as we believe, there was no bad faith and no prejudice."
Rambus officials said they weren't sure whether they would appeal the cases to the U.S. Supreme Court. Rambus is "unwavering" in its decision to pursue patent claims against the companies, Harold Hughes, Rambus' president and CEO, said during a conference call.
Micron applauded the appeal's court decision. Rambus acted in "bad faith" in the case, said Rod Lewis, Micron's vice president of legal affairs.
"We are pleased that the Federal Circuit panel unanimously agreed ... that Rambus wrongfully destroyed evidence," Lewis said in a statement.
A primary question in both cases is whether Rambus reasonably foresaw litigation when it deleted documents and e-mail messages related to the company's DRAM marketing, patent and litigation strategies back in 1998 and 1999, when the company was looking at ways to get competitors to adopt its DRAM technologies or face lawsuits for patent infringement.
The cases stem from a disagreement over DRAM standards set in the 1990s. Rambus was a member of the standards-setting group the Joint Electron Device Engineering Council (JEDEC) from February 1992 to June 1996, according to court documents.
Rambus had developed and patented technology to improve the performance of DRAM, and the company was concerned that competitors were violating its patents when making their own DRAM products. Rambus attempted to get other companies to license its technology, but the company suffered a setback when Intel, formerly a Rambus customer, announced in October 1998 that it was investing US$500 million in Micron's DRAM efforts.
Other DRAM makers and the U.S. Federal Trade Commission accused Rambus of convincing JEDEC to declare a standard for the memory used in PCs, servers, printers and cameras without admitting that it owned the patents to those technologies.