In this article, we highlight the importance of understanding technology for legal professionals by discussing recent trends of ARM based processors and the handling of x86 instructions. We will not comment on the legal strategies, licensing status of companies, or the lawfulness of their approaches.
On November 10, 2020, Apple announced the release of M1 chip, which was designed in-house with ARM-based architecture. The move away from Intel chip marks another milestone for Apple. The ARM architecture typically requires less transistors and has historically been used in portable electronics for power consumption reasons. Therefore, it is no surprise that the M1 chip leads to performance gains and power consumption reductions. In addition, the 5nm technology from TSMC also contributes to performance improvements.
For legal professions, it may be worthwhile tracking the patent portfolio of chip architectural designs as the industry becomes more creative with multi-core designs. One particular area worth noting is the hybrid configuration of processors. The release of Apple’s M1 chip may symbolize a trend for hybrid configuration similar to the famous ARM big.LITTLE configuration. Apple specifically notes that the 8-core Computer Processing Unit (CPU) included in their product lineup, features “4 performance cores” and “4 efficiency cores”. Other companies have also began preparing for these hybrid designs. For example, in 2017, AMD filed for a US patent under Patent no. 10,698,472 B2 for “instruction subset implementation for low power operation”.
With this noted, your intellectual property legal team should have a deep understanding of this technology to properly advise you. Do not overestimate the value of your own technical developments and intellectual properties. For example, in the semiconductor industry, (case 2:19-cv-00056 - KIPB LLC v. Samsung Group et al.) Samsung was found to have infringed patent 6,885,055, a key patent for FinFETs, and was initially liable for US$ 400 million in damages despite Samsung’s large patent portfolio on FinFETs. This case was later settled. Similar legal concerns may arise in the future with architectural designs if companies and their legal teams are not careful with their intellectual property interpretations.
Another area worth noting are the solutions addressing x86 vs. ARM instructions set architecture (ISA).
Immediately upon the release of M1, there are benchmark comparing the M1 emulation of x86 with previous generations of the Mac running Intel x86 natively. We will note, however, that this is not exactly an apple-to-apple comparison, no pun intended. The real concerns are the technical transitions that will take place addressing compatibility issues between x86 to ARM and how these transitions are viewed from a legal perspective.
“Intel carefully protects its x86 innovations, and we do not widely license others to use them. Over the past 30 years, Intel has vigilantly enforced its intellectual property rights against infringement by third-party microprocessors.. Enforcement actions have been unnecessary in recent years because other companies have respected Intel’s intellectual property rights.
However, there have been reports that some companies may try to emulate Intel’s proprietary x86 ISA without Intel’s authorization. Emulation is not a new technology, and Transmeta was notably the last company to claim to have produced a compatible x86 processor using emulation (“code morphing”) techniques. Intel enforced patents relating to SIMD instruction set enhancements against Transmeta’s x86 implementation even though it used emulation. In any event, Transmeta was not commercially successful, and it exited the microprocessor business 10 years ago.
Only time will tell if new attempts to emulate Intel’s x86 ISA will meet a different fate. Intel welcomes lawful competition, and we are confident that Intel’s microprocessors, which have been specifically optimized to implement Intel’s x86 ISA for almost four decades, will deliver amazing experiences, consistency across applications, and a full breadth of consumer offerings, full manageability and IT integration for the enterprise. However, we do not welcome unlawful infringement of our patents, and we fully expect other companies to continue to respect Intel’s intellectual property rights. Strong intellectual property protections make it possible for Intel to continue to invest the enormous resources required to advance Intel’s dynamic x86 ISA, and Intel will maintain its vigilance to protect its innovations and investments.”
Starting from macOS Big Sur in 2020, Apple has included ARM support. Clearly, applications developed for Intel’s x86 architecture will not run natively on ARM processors. Apple developed a translator called Rosetta for consumers and developers to address compatibility issues between the different CPU architectures. Apple states that “Rosetta is a translation process that allows users to run apps that contain x86_64 instructions on Apple silicon”. However, there are limitations to Rosetta, for example, it does not translate “virtual machine applications that virtualizes x86_64 computer platforms”. Do not be surprised if you discover that certain decisions are based on legal rather than technical considerations. Your legal team should understand the nuances of the technical aspects to verify that there are no infringements.
If you are actively involved in the technical areas outlined above, we advise that you consult with your legal team about potential legal concerns. It is our philosophy that legal professionals should anticipate and lawfully resolve issues before they arise.
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