Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Rambus (RMBS) Saga: A Cautionary Tale

Here is a great summary of the Rambus saga, that we have followed over the years:

Few Silicon Valley companies inspire a wider range of emotions than the computer chip designer Rambus. In the view of its leaders -- as well as fiercely loyal shareholders who have flown around the country to watch its lawyers in court -- the company is a visionary turned victim. Rambus revolutionized the computer industry in the 1990s, they say, when the company debuted state-of-the-art chip technology and licensed it to chip manufacturers. Rambus hasn't been fairly compensated for those innovations, its defenders maintain, because rivals copied the technology and refused to pay up. Confronted with brazen collusion and theft, Rambus had no choice but to seek relief in court by suing its rivals.

"We really didn't plan on being a litigation company," says Thomas Lavelle, Rambus's general counsel since 2006. "Our founders had breakthrough innovations and great patents, and they believed that would lead to success. I don't think it occurred to them that -- as cynical as the world can be -- the better product might not be adopted."


Rambus officials, for their part, strike an optimistic tone. "We're the small company that went into battle and found ourselves up against a couple of armies and somehow survived," says Lavelle. "While we haven't been successful in all of our litigation, we have plenty of assets, resources, and spirit to go forward. I think that's a remarkable story in and of itself."

Rambus's lawyers at Munger tried to make use of an email purportedly revealing a scheme by Micron to fix prices of its chip technology, known as DDR SDRAM. Micron executive Linda Turner wrote to her sales team in 2001 that "we have ... actually been requesting Infineon, Samsung, and Hynix to lower their DDR pricing to help it become a standard (and drive Rambus away completely)." The Rambus faithful have long felt that the Turner email was a smoking gun of price-fixing.

For Several observers, the Rambus saga is a cautionary tale. As Quinn, the patent lawyer at Zies, Widerman, sees it, "Rambus felt wronged and said, 'We are going to litigate to get the result we know we deserve.' " That's a dangerous mind-set, Quinn continues: "Once they did that, they crossed a bridge and burned it. There was no going back." Jordan Sigale, a partner at Loeb & Loeb who has not represented Rambus or its opponents, agrees that Rambus should have struck a different tone. "If your model is to have other companies license your technology, when you have to litigate, you do so professionally and without bravado, so that you don't burn bridges," he says. Instead, Rambus went for a "scorched-earth policy." Sigale adds, "I think it's going to be a long time before Micron and Hynix come back to Rambus and license anything."
Rambus may not need them, however. It continues to license DRAM patents, both old and new, to companies such as Samsung and Panasonic Corporation. And it got a morale boost in December, when Broadcom signed an agreement to license DRAM patents. (Rambus had sued Broadcom at the International Trade Commission, alleging infringement of six DRAM patents.)
Perhaps sensing an uncertain future in computer memory, Rambus is branching out. Last year it paid $342 million for Cryptography Research, a company that provides security to semiconductors. It has also acquired the rights to portfolios of LED lighting patents from smaller companies. "That's where we are really putting most of our focus going forward," says Lavelle. "I like to think that over time, we are going to be a role model for how to do what the U.S. is good at -- innovate and turn that innovation into revenue.

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