The FinFET has served as a foundational piece of technology for Intel's processors since 2011, serving as a key ingredient in nearly every processor it sells. However, Intel has been embroiled in a patent infringement lawsuit in China since 2018 with a Chinese government-funded R&D lab that asserts the company has violated its FinFET patent. Intel has responded by challenging the validity of the patent, but it recently lost its sixth challenge with the China Patent Reexamination Board, marking yet another setback for Intel in the case as it looks to avoid a ban on the sale of its 'Core' family of processors in China.
The Institute of Microelectronics of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (IMECAS) filed the lawsuit against Intel in the Beijing High Court in 2018, seeking 200 million yuan (roughly $31 million USD) in damages plus the cost of litigation. More importantly, the lawsuit also seeks a ban on the sale of Intel's 'Core' family of chips that it uses for its client products, at least until the two parties can come to a licensing agreement.
Intel provided the following statement to Tom's Hardware regarding the latest developments:
"This decision is subject to appeal and Intel looks forward to the courts’ balanced consideration of Intel’s invalidity challenges to the asserted patent."
IMECAS has also filed two other patent infringement lawsuits against Intel (more below). Intel can't assign a dollar amount to the potential total damages, saying, "[...]we are unable to make a reasonable estimate of the potential loss or range of losses, if any, arising from these matters. We dispute IMECAS's claims and intend to vigorously defend against them."
Intel's latest setback in the FinFET case follows a long string of the company's attempts to bring the Inter Partes patent review process to friendlier climes at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. However, the USPTO has refused to hear the case, leaving the dispute in the hands of the Chinese patent authorities.
Intel began using FinFET designs with the debut of its third-gen 22nm Ivy Bridge processors back in 2011 and continues to use the tech in its latest products. The dispute centers around the 457 patent (CN 102956457), also known as the "FinFET patent." IMECAS also sued Dell China and JingDong Century Information Technology (JD) for infringing the '457 patent, but those companies tendered indemnity to Intel.
Intel has encountered some success by challenging the validity of the patent — three of the claims in the patent have been deemed invalid. However, eleven of the claims are still enforceable. That means, barring any additional successful challenges, the infringement lawsuit against Intel will move forward.
IMECAS has expanded its efforts, too, by suing Intel in two other patent infringement actions related to the sale and manufacturing of its Core i3 processors (CN 102386226 — '226 Patent), this time related to MOSFET technology. These actions also demand injunctions and reimbursement for litigation costs, but differ in that IMECAS reserves the right to claim an unspecified amount of damages.
Intel will obviously exhaust all options as it fights the infringement lawsuits, but IMECAS has the advantage of being on its home court (quite literally). Additionally, according to ICsmart, with over 5,000 patents filed in China and 500 filed in foreign countries, along with 1,505 patent licenses in IC technologies, IMECAS has plenty of experience with patent law and is a seasoned litigant.
Intel is no stranger to litigation, either, so we can expect these cases to drag out for quite some time. Challenging the validity of the FinFET patent is among the first steps of the process — Intel and IMECAS will head to court as soon as those attempts have been exhausted. However, it appears that Intel is running out of options to challenge the veracity of the patent, so this case could either enter the courtroom or see a settlement in the coming months.
Intel's legal department is certainly busy: The company is also in the midst of a long-running series of lawsuits from VLSI that have already seen the company fined $2.18 billion for one case but emerge victorious in another. Intel still has other lawsuits underway with VLSI. According to Intel, those suits could cost it $11 billion if it loses the legal battles with VLSI in all states. There are also the pesky lawsuits associated with the Meltdown and Spectre vulnerabilities and the company's 7nm delay.