What’s brewing in AMEC-Lam etch IP dispute?

January 27, 2011 – Advanced Micro-Fabrication Equipment Inc. (AMEC) says that Taiwan’s IP Court has dismissed an appeal by Lam Research regarding allegations that AMEC infringed on some of Lam’s etch patents, and also that a related Lam etch patent has been deemed invalid.

The backstory: Lam initially filed suit against AMEC in early 2009 alleging that AMEC’s Primo D-RIE dielectric etching equipment infringed upon Taiwanese patents about confinement rings, and focus rings in plasma reactors; AMEC responded on grounds of noninfringement and invalidity. In Sept. 2009 Taiwan’s IP Court dismissed the confinement ring patent lawsuit; now it has also rejected Lam’s appeal of that decision. The IP Court’s formal published decision is expected in a few weeks. Meanwhile, Lam’s focus ring patent, which it had withdrawn from the AMEC dispute, has been deemed invalid by Taiwan’s IP Office on grounds that "the claims lack novelty and non-obviousness," according to AMEC.

AMEC calls these two decisions important as they impact "two key areas of Primo D-RIE technology."

Analysis: There’s two schools of thought on all this. First, in etch, Lam Research is the marketshare leader and added more in 2010; AMEC isn’t really in the picture. And this is a patent case in Asia, where IP protection has somewhat different standards, points out VLSI Research’s Risto Puhakka. So clearly there’s some gamesmanship going on — Lam’s trying to preempt any AMEC market inroads, and AMEC is trumpeting its fight against a competitor.

But there could be something bigger brewing here, too. AMEC top Gerald Yin worked at Lam and helped design their rainbow chamber, points out Gartner analyst Dean Freeman, and these IP court decisions indicate that Yin "obviously did his homework and did not infringe" on Lam’s etch technology. In the greater scheme, the Taiwan IP decisions will allow AMEC to sell equipment outside of Taiwan — Yin claimed in a statement that the company’s etch technology already "has gained a strong foothold in Taiwan and other regions." So now AMEC appears to have a chance to prove whether its technology is competitive (with Lam, and also AMAT and TEL) in terms of cost-of-ownership, Freeman said.


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