GlobalFoundries Files Patent Claims Against TSMC, Seeks to Ban Imports of Nvidia, Apple Chips (Update)

(Image credit: Piotr Swat / Shutterstock)

Updated, 8/27/19, 6am PT: TSMC responded to our request for comment with a statement in which it said that it "will vigorously defend its proprietary technology in response to GlobalFoundries complaints." The full statement can be found below.Original article, 8/26/19, 8:02am PT: 

GlobalFoundries (GF) today announced that it filed lawsuits against Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC) in the U.S. and Germany over the alleged infringement of 16 patents. The company said that it's looking to halt the import of processors made with the technologies and is seeking "significant damages from TSMC based on TSMC’s unlawful use of GF’s proprietary technology in its tens of billions of dollars of sales." Impacted companies include Nvidia and Apple.

Note that GlobalFoundries said it wants to stop the import of processors made with the technologies it believes are covered by its patents. The company recognized that TSMC doesn't usually import those processors into the U.S. or Germany; TSMC's customers do. That means the lawsuits could affect much of the tech industry: TSMC said that in 2018 it was "manufacturing 10,436 different products using 261 distinct technologies for 481 different customers."

The list of companies supplied by TSMC includes AMD, Nvidia, Apple, Mediatek and many others, which means that GlobalFoundries could bring the tech industry to a halt if it's allowed to stop imports to the U.S. and Germany.

The lawsuits were filed with the U.S. International Trade Commission, the U.S. Federal District Courts in the Districts of Delaware and the Western District of Texas and, in Germany, the Regional Courts of Dusseldorf and Mannheim. GlobalFoundries leaned hard on TSMC being headquartered in Taiwan in its announcement, effectively portraying the dispute as an Eastern company profiting off the innovations of its Western competitor.

That positioning was made clear in the following statement provided with GlobalFoundries' announcement today:

“While semiconductor manufacturing has continued to shift to Asia, GF has bucked the trend by investing heavily in the American and European semiconductor industries, spending more than $15 billion dollars in the last decade in the U.S. and more than $6 billion in Europe's largest semiconductor manufacturing fabrication facility. These lawsuits are aimed at protecting those investments and the U.S. and European-based innovation that powers them,” said Gregg Bartlett, senior vice president, engineering and technology at GF. “For years, while we have been devoting billions of dollars to domestic research and development, TSMC has been unlawfully reaping the benefits of our investments. This action is critical to halt Taiwan Semiconductor’s unlawful use of our vital assets and to safeguard the American and European manufacturing base.”

We reached out to Patrick Moorhead, Founder, President & Principal Analyst at boutique tech analyst firm Moor Insights & Strategy, for some perspective:

"With GlobalFoundries focusing more on IoT and RF [Internet of Things and radio frequency], it appears to be going after companies that likely won't be future customers but are believed to infringe on its patents for leading-edge process. You can bet Global Foundries was trying to collect royalties behind the scenes, failed, and will now let the courts decide," Moorhead told Tom's Hardware.

Moorhead's analysis does appear to be spot on, as AMD is currently GlobalFoundries' client for its 14nm Ryzen 1000- and 2000-series chips, along with the IOD/chipset dies that the company uses in tandem with its new Ryzen 3000-series CPUs, but isn't listed in the complaint even though TSMC is now its primary source of manufacturing for its new chips. TSMC hasn't publicly commented on GlobalFoundries' lawsuits at the time of writing.

TSMC sent us the following statement in response to our request for comment:

TSMC is in the process of reviewing the complaints filed by GlobalFoundries on August 26, but is confident that GlobalFoundries’ allegations are baseless. As a leading innovator, TSMC invests billions of dollars each year to independently develop its world-class, leading-edge semiconductor manufacturing technologies. As a result, TSMC has established one of the largest semiconductor portfolios with more than 37,000 patents worldwide and a top 10 ranking for US patent grants for 3 consecutive years since 2016. We are disappointed to see a foundry peer resort to meritless lawsuits instead of competing in the marketplace with technology. TSMC is proud of its technology leadership, manufacturing excellence, and unwavering commitment to customers. We will fight vigorously, using any and all options, to protect our proprietary technologies.

GlobalFoundries announced in August 2018 that it would cease development of its 7nm process to focus on being a "specialty foundry." The company recently showed off 3D chips it developed alongside Arm to enable a "new-level of system performance and power efficiency for computing applications, such as AI/ML [artificial intelligence and machine learning] and high-end consumer mobile and wireless solutions." We said at the time that larger foundries--including TSMC--would likely follow. It seems that GlobalFoundries believes TSMC has been following its new technologies for a while.

Here's a few snippets from the filing:

  • Defendants (20):
  • Foundry: Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company Ltd. (TSMC)
  • Fabless chip designers: Apple, Broadcom, Mediatek, nVidia, Qualcomm, Xilinx
  • Electronic component distributors: Avnet/EBV, Digi-key, Mouser
  • Consumer product: Arista, ASUS, BLU, Cisco, Google, HiSense, Lenovo, Motorola, TCL, OnePlus
  • GF Patents in the cases (16): The technologies at issue relate to the advanced semiconductor devices and methods of manufacturing those devices. See table on next page for details.
  • Accused Infringing Technologies (5): TSMC 7nm, 10nm, 12nm, 16nm , 28nm

And a list of the purportedly-infringed patents:

(Image credit: GlobalFoundries)
Nathaniel Mott
Freelance News & Features Writer

Nathaniel Mott is a freelance news and features writer for Tom's Hardware US, covering breaking news, security, and the silliest aspects of the tech industry.

  • JamesSneed
    I had been wondering when in their desperation GloFlo would start suing using those IBM patents. Kind of sad to see GloFlo buyout one of the best mind shares from IBM to just litigate instead of create. If only GloFlo could have got 7nm going they would have all of AMD's business and it's going to be a hell of a lot of chips over the next 5 years.

    I will bet you will see AMD pull every bit of production from GloFlo in 2020.
  • mihen
    These patents do seem valid. If you look at them they are very specific and filed for Global Foundries. The oldest one was granted in 2014. They may be trying to strong arm TSMC into a patent agreement. Any trial of this nature would be lengthy and Global Foundries would need to prove TSMC used the specific patents. It may be possible that TSMC used these methods related to a prior partnership among Foundries.
  • InvalidError
    Based on titles, half of those patents sound like reinventing the wheel to patent the paint put on it: can't build an IC without interconnects between gates, drains, sources, power planes, signal traces, routing layers, etc.
  • Co BIY
    Not sure you can judge the likely validity of the patents based the titles alone as the titles are always going to be generalized but the technique or device may be very unique.

    This not a case of a Patent troll who was able to get some garbage patented and later sues for violation. I bet most of these are valid IP.

    Proving use of these in competing devices may be difficult as well (I would guess but have no knowledge of). I would be interested in how they demonstrate that their patents were violated.

    Patent lawsuits and disputes are similar to Tariffs in my mind. Generally destructive but sometimes the only recourse to rein in abusive actors. Both are much more complicated in our highly interwoven economies.
  • vaughn2k
    GloFo, did not notice, that most inventors are Asians.. Such a whiner.
  • bit_user
    ... it appears to be going after companies that likely won't be future customers ...
    Moorhead's analysis does appear to be spot on, as AMD is currently GlobalFoundries' client
    How do we know that AMD isn't a defendant because they paid up?
  • bit_user
    vaughn2k said:
    GloFo, did not notice, that most inventors are Asians.. Such a whiner.
    WTF does that have to do with anything?

    And there's only a possible majority, if you count Indians as Asian and if you count each inventor once per patent on which they're listed. If your point is that it's some kind of racist move by Glo Fo, then I'm not sure if you'd lump the South Asians with the East Asians

    Anyway, there's a lot of Saudi money in Glo Fo, so maybe go think about that for a while.
  • AllanGH
    Co BIY said:
    This not a case of a Patent troll who was able to get some garbage patented and later sues for violation. I bet most of these are valid IP.
    The IP involved is only a holding of a purchased patent, and not original effort.

    Sorry. Though you might want it to be otherwise, this is the definition of a patent troll--behaviour not worthy of respect in any circle.
  • mihen
    You can look at the patents since they listed them. I only looked at the first couple. They were granted in 2014 and list a specific process in fabrication. The entity filing the patents was Global Foundry.
  • TJ Hooker
    AllanGH said:
    The IP involved is only a holding of a purchased patent, and not original effort.
    Where are you getting this from?