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Philips sues over bus patents

The US subsidiary of Europe's largest consumer electronics maker is suing eight motherboard and semiconductor manufacturers for allegedly infringing on patents covering technology used to connect chips.

Fortunately for end users, the lawsuits are unlikely to push up the price of computer components, analysts and a lawyer for one of the defendants said.

In a statement issued on 17 October, the company said that US Philips, a subsidiary of Koninklijke Philips Electronics, filed a suit against LSI Logic, Atmel, Maxim Integrated Products and Semtech. The company alleges that the chip makers constructed integrated circuits that infringe upon a Philips patented technology for linking chips together on computer circuit boards.

But Julie Marspinola, chief litigation and intellectual property counsel for Atmel, said: "This should not affect the customers in terms of price."

Philips is also suing Abit Computer, Asustek Computer and Microstar International, all based in Taiwan, claiming that the manufacturers export chips, motherboards and computers to the US that make use of the same technology. Also named in the suits are Dallas Semiconductor and various US subsidiaries of the Taiwanese companies.

The technology in question is known as Inter-Integrated Circuit (I2C) Bus, and is used in PCs, televisions, audio components, telephones and other electronics equipment. Philips - along with 50 other companies that have licensed the patent - makes chips with interfaces that allow them to transfer data over the I2C bus.

Although the Philips suit was filed nearly two weeks ago, Marspinola said that her company had not yet been served with court papers. "I believe that at least one other company has not been served either," she said.

"While we did get a courtesy copy of the complaint, nothing has been formally sent by the court," Marspinola added.

This is not the first time Phillips has gone to court to defend its patents. In October 2000, the Dutch company sued six other chip makers over the I2C patent. Cirrus Logic and Linear Technology have since settled and signed licensing agreements with Philips, but the other four companies - Analog Devices, Cypress Semiconductor, Fairchild Semiconductor and Standard Microsystems - are still carrying out their legal battle. A Philips spokesman said that the case against the remaining four defendants is expected to come to trial in mid-2002..

One analyst said Philips' lawsuits were unlikely to have an effect on PCs and other products that use the technology.

"It seems like fundamentally their argument is with the chip manufacturers, not the motherboard makers," said Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst with Insight 64. "I think they're taking this action to pressure the chip suppliers to get in line."

Martin Reynolds, a research fellow with analyst firm Gartner, agreed that it was unlikely the suit would result in a rise of PC prices. "Philips just wants to collect their royalty, which is just a few pennies on each device," he said.

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