Rambus Incorporated, founded in 1990, is an American technology licensing company, and has also been labelled as a patent troll. The company became well known for its intellectual property-based litigation following the introduction of DDR-SDRAM memory.
Rambus, a California company, was incorporated in 1990 and re-incorporated in the state of Delaware in 1997. The company was listed on NASDAQ in 1997 under the code RMBS. As of February 2006, Rambus derived the majority of its annual revenue by licensing patents for chip interfaces to its customers.
According to the Wall Street Journal, history of Rambus has been "marked by litigation, including patent battles with numerous chip makers".
Rambus' share price has ranged between a high of nearly $150 in 2000 to a low of approximately $3 in 2002 with a 4:1 split on June 15, 2000. Rambus' share price in the first quarter of 2010 was between $20 and $24, giving the firm a market capitalization value of around $2.5 billion.
An early version of RDRAM, base RDRAM, was used in the Nintendo 64 that was released in 1996.
The first PC motherboards with support for RDRAM were released in 1999. They supported PC800 RDRAM, which operated at 400 MHz but presented data on both the rising and falling edge of the clock cycle resulting in effectively 800 MHz, and delivered 1600 MB/s of bandwidth over a 16-bit bus using a 184-pin RIMM form factor. This was significantly faster than the previous standard, PC133 SDRAM, which operated at 133 MHz and delivered 1066 MB/s of bandwidth over a 64-bit bus using a 168-pin DIMM form factor.
Some disadvantages of RDRAM technology, however, included significantly increased latency, power dissipation as heat, manufacturing complexity, and cost. PC800 RDRAM operated with a minimum latency of 45 ns, compared to 15 ns for PC133 SDRAM. RDRAMs can also be told to increase their latencies in order to prevent the possibility of two or more chips transmitting at the same time and causing a collision. However, SDRAM latency depends on the current state of memory so its latency can vary widely depending on what happened earlier and the strategy used by the SDRAM controller, while RDRAM latency is constant once it has been established by the memory controller. RDRAM memory chips also put out significantly more heat than SDRAM chips, necessitating heatsinks on all RIMM devices. RDRAM also includes a memory controller on each memory chip, significantly increasing manufacturing complexity compared to SDRAM, which used a single memory controller located on the northbridge chipset. RDRAM was also two to three times the price of PC133 SDRAM due to manufacturing costs, license fees and other market factors.
With the introduction of the Intel 840 chipset, dual-channel support was added for PC800 RDRAM, doubling bandwidth to 3200 MB/s by increasing the bus width to 32-bit. This was followed in 2002 by the Intel 850E chipset, which introduced PC1066 RDRAM, increasing total dual-channel bandwidth to 4266 MB/s. Also in 2002, Intel released the E7205 chipset, which introduced dual-channel DDR support for a total bandwidth of 4266 MB/s, but at a much lower latency than competing RDRAM. In 2003, Intel released the 875P chipset, and along with it dual-channel DDR400. With a total bandwidth of 6400 MB/s, it marked the end of RDRAM as a technology with competitive performance.
Rambus also developed and licensed its XDR DRAM technology, notably used in the PlayStation 3, and more recently XDR2 DRAM.
In the early 1990s, Rambus was invited to join the JEDEC. Rambus had been trying to interest memory manufacturers in licensing their proprietary memory interface, and numerous companies had signed non-disclosure agreements to view Rambus' technical data. During the later Infineon v. Rambus trial, Infineon memos from a meeting with representatives of other manufacturers surfaced, including the line "[O]ne day all computers will be built this way, but hopefully without the royalties going to Rambus", and continuing with a strategy discussion for reducing or eliminating royalties to be paid to Rambus. As Rambus continued its participation in JEDEC, it became apparent that they were not prepared to agree to JEDEC's patent policy requiring owners of patents included in a standard to agree to license that technology under terms that are "reasonable and non-discriminatory", and Rambus withdrew from the organization in 1995. Memos from Rambus at that time showed they were tailoring new patent applications to cover features of SDRAM being discussed, which were public knowledge (JEDEC meetings are not secret) and perfectly legal for patent owners who have patented underlying innovations, but were seen as evidence of bad faith by the jury in the first Infineon v. Rambus trial. The Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit (CAFC) rejected this theory of bad faith in its decision overturning the fraud conviction Infineon achieved in the first trial (see below).
In 2000, Rambus began filing lawsuits against the largest memory manufacturers, claiming that they owned SDRAM and DDR technology. Seven manufacturers, including Samsung, quickly settled with Rambus and agreed to pay royalties on SDRAM and DDR memory. In May 2001, Rambus was found guilty of fraud for having claimed that it owned SDRAM and DDR technology, and all infringement claims against memory manufacturers were dismissed. In January 2003, the CAFC overturned the fraud verdict of the jury trial in Virginia under Judge Payne, issued a new claims construction, and remanded the case back to Virginia for re-trial on infringement. In October 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case. Thus, the case returned to Virginia per the CAFC ruling.
In January 2005, Rambus filed four more lawsuits against memory chip makers Hynix Semiconductor, Nanya Technology, Inotera Memories and Infineon Technology claiming that DDR 2, GDDR 2 and GDDR 3 chips contain Rambus technology. In March 2005, Rambus had its claim for patent infringements against Infineon dismissed. Rambus was accused of shredding key documents prior to court hearings, the judge agreed and dismissed Rambus' case against Infineon. This led Rambus to negotiate a settlement with Infineon, which agreed to pay Rambus quarterly license fees of $5.9 million and in return, both companies ceased all litigation against each other. The agreement ran from November 2005 to November 2007. After this date, if Rambus had enough remaining agreements in place, Infineon may make extra payments up to $100 million. In June 2005, Rambus also sued one of its strongest proponents, Samsung, the world's largest memory manufacturer, and terminated Samsung's license. Samsung had promoted Rambus's RDRAM and currently remains a licensee of Rambus's XDR memory.
In February 2006, Micron Technology sued Rambus, alleging that Rambus had violated RICO and deliberately harmed Micron.
On April 29, 2008, the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit issued a ruling vacating the order of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, saying the case with Samsung should be dismissed, saying Judge Robert E. Payne's findings critical of Rambus, were on a case that had already been settled, and thus had no legal standing.
On January 9, 2009, a Delaware federal judge ruled that Rambus could not enforce patents against Micron Technology Inc., stating that Rambus had a "clear and convincing" show of bad faith, and ruled that Rambus' destruction of key related documents (spoliation of evidence) nullified its right to enforce its patents against Micron.
In July 2009, the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) rejected 8 claims by Rambus against Nvidia.
On November 24, 2009, the USPTO rejected all 17 claims in three Rambus patents that the company asserted against Nvidia in a complaint filed with the U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC). However the ITC has announced that out of five patents, Nvidia did violate three of them. Due to this ruling Nvidia is facing a U.S. import ban on some of its chips used in the nForce, Quadro, GeForce, Tesla, and Tegra series graphics products—nearly every video card type manufactured by Nvidia.
On June 20, 2011, Rambus went to trial against Micron and Hynix in California, seeking as much as $12.9 billion in damages for “a secret and unlawful conspiracy to kill a revolutionary technology, make billions of dollars and hang onto power”, Rambus lawyer Bart Williams told jurors. Rambus lost on November 16, 2011, in the jury trial and its shares dropped drastically, from $14.04 to $4.00 per share.
On November 16, 2011, Rambus lost the antitrust case against Micron Technology and Hynix Semiconductor. The San Francisco County Superior Court jury ruled against Rambus in a 9-3 vote. In a statement posted on the company's website, Rambus CEO Harold Hughes said: "We are reviewing our options for appeal".
On January 24, 2012, a USPTO appeals board declared the third of three patents known as the "Barth patents" invalid. The first two had been declared invalid in September 2011. Rambus had used these patents to win infringement lawsuits against Nvidia Corp (NVDA.O) and Hewlett-Packard (HPQ.N).
On June 28, 2013, The Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit reversed the USPTO and the '109 Barth patent's validity was reinstated:
"In conclusion, the Board’s determination that all 25 claims of the ’109 Patent are invalid as anticipated by Farmwald is not supported by substantial evidence. Accordingly, this court reverses."
In May 2002, the United States Federal Trade Commission (FTC) filed charges against Rambus for antitrust violations. Specifically, the FTC complaint asserted that through the use of patent continuations and divisionals, Rambus pursued a strategy of expanding the scope of its patent claims to encompass the emerging SDRAM standard. The FTC's antitrust allegations against Rambus went to trial in the summer of 2003 after the organization formally accused Rambus of anti-competitive behavior the previous June, itself the result of an investigation launched in May 2002 at the behest of the memory manufacturers. The FTC's chief administrative-law judge, Stephen J. McGuire, dismissed the antitrust claims against Rambus in 2006, saying that the memory industry had no reasonable alternatives to Rambus technology and was aware of the potential scope of Rambus patent rights, according to the company. Soon after, FTC investigators filed a brief to appeal against that ruling.
On August 2, 2006, the FTC overturned McGuire's ruling, stating that Rambus illegally monopolized the memory industry under section 2 of the Sherman Antitrust Act, and also practiced deception that violated section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act.
February 5, 2007, the FTC issued a ruling that limits maximum royalties that Rambus may demand from manufacturers of dynamic random-access memory (DRAM), which was set to 0.5% for DDR SDRAM for 3 years from the date the Commission's Order is issued and then going to 0; while SDRAM's maximum royalty was set to 0.25%. The Commission claimed that halving the DDR SDRAM rate for SDRAM would reflect the fact that while DDR SDRAM utilizes four of the relevant Rambus technologies, SDRAM uses only two. In addition to collecting fees for DRAM chips, Rambus will also be able to receive 0.5% and 1.0% royalties for SDRAM and DDR SDRAM memory controllers or other non-memory chip components respectively. However, the ruling did not prohibit Rambus from collecting royalties on products based on DDR2 SDRAM, GDDR2, and other JEDEC post-DDR memory standards. Rambus has appealed the FTC Opinion/Remedy and awaits a court date for the appeal.
On March 26, 2008, the jury of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California determined that had Rambus acted properly while a member of the standard-setting organization JEDEC during its participating in the early 1990s, finding that the memory manufacturers did not meet their burden of proving antitrust and fraud claims.
On April 22, 2008, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit overturned the FTC reversal of McGuire's 2006 ruling, saying that the FTC had not established that Rambus had harmed the competition.
On February 23, 2009, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the bids by the FTC to impose royalty sanctions on Rambus via antitrust penalties.
July 30, 2007, the European Commission launched antitrust investigations against Rambus, taking the view that Rambus engaged in intentional deceptive conduct in the context of the standard-setting process for example by not disclosing the existence of the patents which it later claimed were relevant to the adopted standard. This type of behaviour is known as a "patent ambush". Against this background, the Commission provisionally considered that Rambus breached the EC Treaty's rules on abuse of a dominant market position (Article 82 EC Treaty) by subsequently claiming unreasonable royalties for the use of those relevant patents. The Commission's preliminary view is that without its "patent ambush", Rambus would not have been able to charge the royalty rates it currently does.
In 2013 and 2014, Rambus settled and agreed on licensing terms with several of the companies involved in long-running disputes. On December 13, 2013, Rambus entered an agreement with Micron to let the latter use some of its patents, in exchange for $280 million worth of royalties over seven years. In June 2013, the company settled with SK Hynix, with Hynix paying $240 million to settle the disputes.
In March 2014, Rambus and Nanya signed a 5-year patent licensing agreement, settling earlier claims.
Rambus said these deals were part of a change in strategy to a less litigious, more collaborative approach, distancing themselves from accusations of patent trolling. Ronald Black, Rambus’s CEO, said, “Somehow we got thrown into the patent troll bunch…This is just not the case.”