In the latest twist in the semiconductor memory patent infringement battle, U.S. semiconductor company Atmel Corp. said Thursday that customs authorities in the U.S. had blocked imports of chips said to be infringing on one of its patents, while Japan's Sanyo Electric Co. Ltd., which has seen shipments of its chips halted, maintained they do not infringe the patents under question.
Some EPROM (Erasable Programmable Read-Only Memory), EEPROM (Electronic EPROM), flash memory and flash memory controller chips manufactured by two companies, Sanyo and Taiwan's Winbond Electronics Corp., had been blocked from the U.S. market since an October 2000 ruling by the International Trade Commission found they infringed on a patent held by Atmel. Silicon Storage Technologies Inc. (SST), a U.S.-based chip supplier, was hit because it sold chips manufactured for it by Sanyo.
The patent concerns silicon signal technology whereby information that identifies the manufacturer is automatically accessed from a semiconductor chip upon the application of a high-voltage signal.
The ruling, which was confirmed by an appeals court in February, allowed the two companies to continue shipping such chips that were found not to infringe on the patent under question.
"We applied to the U.S. Customs to be able to import flash memory that were not in conflict with the 903 patent, and the U.S. Customs on 13th April rejected the application," said Derek Wentz in a telephone interview, a spokesman for Sanyo, referring to the patent under question. "Sanyo sees that as a contradiction to the Court of International Trade's earlier ruling, so we filed an appeal to remove that hold on that objection to import flash memory into the U.S. on the 23rd of April. Now we are waiting to hear how that turns out," he said.
Separately, Atmel said Thursday SST and Winbond had filed a complaint at the Court of International Trade (CIT) after the U.S. Customs Service detained shipments of what the company described as "alleged redesigned flash devices" after deciding that they fell under the scope of the October ruling. The CIT, said Atmel, had issued an order allowing customs authorities to continue holding current and future shipments of the devices from the two companies while a request by SST and Winbond for an injunction against U.S. Customs is resolved.
Winbond and SST could not immediately be reached for comment.
Since Atmel won its partial victory, the chip makers have been making efforts to reassure customers that they need not worry about stable supply of components. Sanyo, in a message to customers, went to some lengths to stress that shipments of finished products containing chips that infringe the patent would not be hit by the decision. It said, "The ITC has expressly stated that it will not order any exclusion of any shipments of finished downstream products." SST, meanwhile, set up a special Web site to answer customers' questions.
The battle between the companies has only a limited amount of time to run. Patents on silicon signal technology expire on Sept. 18 this year, and the ITC's order blocking imports ends the same day.
Sanyo Electric, in Osaka, can be contacted at +81-6-6991-1181 or found online at http://www.sanyo.co.jp/. Atmel, in San Jose, can be contacted at +1-408-441-0311 or http://www.atmel.com/.