Warren S. Heit(11/21/2005 10:00 AM EST)EE Times
A Silicon Valley dispute festering in the courts since 1999 will likely have far-reaching impact on how chip designers protect their intellectual property. A decision in September by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in Altera Corp. v. Clear Logic Inc. has given the little-used Semiconductor Chip Protection Act (sometimes called the SCPA or the "Mask Works Act") a new lease on life. The decision lets designers invoke SCPA to protect their designs at a higher, more architectural level, not merely at the lower, transistor level.
Since a chip's architecture-its functional blocks and their layout and interconnectivity-is a critical component of its design and the blueprint upon which the chip is built, designers dedicate enormous resources to its development.
Designers have relied almost exclusively on patents to protect innovations in a chip architecture. While a powerful form of IP protection, patenting takes a long time, averaging two to three years; can be prohibitively expensive, costing $10,000 to $50,000 or more; and often requires innovators to make concessions that narrow the claims and thus the scope of the protection.
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