Davids Do Beat Goliaths Sometimes


Today, Associate Editor Samuel K. Moore offers a mea culpa to a small tech firm that has confounded his doubts by waging a patent fight against some of the microprocessor giants—and winning.

Samuel K. Moore

Back in 2003, when I first read a press release from Patriot Scientific, of San Diego, I must admit I laughed out loud. This troubled, profitless speck of a company said it was suing five of the biggest consumer electronics makers in Japan for infringing patents it held that described technology used in just about every microprocessor made since the early 1990s. That's a lot of processors. To top off this brazen claim, the company started filing suits on Christmas Eve. I didn't think Patriot had a chance.

Perhaps I should not have been so dismissive. After years of legal hardball, the company has made good on its claims, to the tune of US $35.9 million in revenue for the fiscal year ending 31 May. Patriot's annual report, filed on 13 October, gives the first comprehensive glimpse of how well the company has convinced major electronics makers to knuckle under. In the first nine months of 2006, the company's jointly owned licensing company, Phoenix Digital Solutions, hooked nine big fish: Casio, Fujitsu, HP, Seiko Epson, Sony, Nikon, PENTAX, Olympus, and Kenwood. AMD and Intel gave in last year. From 1 June to 3 October Phoenix brought in $32.7 million from some of these deals; Patriot should see a little less than half of that. As you'd expect, Patriot doesn't disclose how much each one paid. In conversation last year, a lawyer involved in the licensing indicated that Patriot wanted to attract customers by cutting the first few licensees a cheap deal. I don't know if any of the cheap licenses are left, but clearly the strategy has worked.

The issue concerns the so-called Moore Microprocessor Patents (MMP), named for Charles Moore, the inventor of the Forth programming language. A good example of an affected technology involves clocks, the drumbeaters that keep all a circuit's soldiers marching in step. In the old days, microprocessors ran off the same clock signal as the rest of the computer, and that was no problem at speeds below around 120 MHz. The trouble is that the computer's clock signal has to follow many centimeters of copper wiring all over the computer, leading to delays. Charles Moore and Russell Fish dreamed up the solution of letting the processor clock run as fast as you want while synchronizing it to the computer's much slower clock, enabling speeds in the gigahertz range. And that's the way things have worked for the past decade or so.

How a seeming pipsqueak like Patriot wound up with the keys to the microprocessor kingdom is a complicated tale, but here goes.

Fish and Moore came up with their technology while developing the SH-Boom microprocessor in the late 1980s. Sometime before the patents issued, Fish transferred his interest in SH-Boom to a family trust, which sold it to a company called Nanotronics, which sold it to Patriot in 1995. Patriot apparently didn't realize the value of the patents until the early 2000s, a time of stock taking for many holders of intellectual property. (Remember when British Telecom briefly thought it owned hypertext linking?)

Patriot saw it had been leaving money on the table and embarked on its Christmas quest for cash, but it quickly got stuck (unless all owners of a patent sue, a court case will get nowhere), and Moore wouldn't go along with Patriot's plan. His Silicon Valley licensing firm, Technology Properties, Ltd. (TPL), began a legal battle for full ownership, and Patriot's dreams of riches seemed to recede.

But the big technology companies apparently feared infringing on the patents and rushed to cut a deal no matter what the legal niceties. At one point, AMD took a $1.7-million license from Patriot, and Intel took a license from Moore. (AMD put both oars in, paying additional cash for Patriot's original product, the processor that succeeded Moore and Fish's SH-boom processor.)

The promise of vast sums of money can make even bitter rivals kiss and make up; and in 2005, TPL, Moore, and Patriot set aside their suits and formed Phoenix Digital, a 50-50 joint venture for licensing the patents.

Patriot and its shareholders are enjoying their first profitable year ever, and Moore has moved on to found a fabless multicore processor firm, Intelasys. But the tale of the patents may not be over. Russell Fish and his family trust sued Patriot seeking a piece of the action. The Fish family and Patriot have been in mediation since 11 September. Stay tuned.


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