Nvidia launches patent war against Samsung and Qualcomm over graphic chips

Nvidia Jetson

Nvidia, a pioneer in graphic processing chips used in video games and smartphones, claims that the Qualcomm chips inside a host of Samsung devices violate seven of its patents. In lawsuits filed this week, it also attacks Samsung’s use of ARM’s Mali processor core and Imagination’s PowerVR graphics chips in addition to the Samsung phones that use Qualcomm’s Adreno graphics chip.

In complaints filed in Delaware federal court and at the International Trade Commission, Silicon Valley-based Nvidia states that it has been in licensing talks with Samsung since August of 2012, but that the Korean company refuses to license its patents.

The alleged infringement concerns Adreno processors, made by Qualcomm, that are found in Samsung phones like the Galaxy S5 and the Galaxy Note 4 in tablets like the Galaxy Tab S. It also targets Samsung Galaxy mobile phones and tablets containing ARM’s Mali or Imagination’s PowerVR graphics architectures. However, Nvidia isn’t suing ARM or Imagination in this case, perhaps because it too, is an ARM licensee, albeit not of the Mali graphics core.

While patent lawsuits are all-too-familiar in the tech industry, this one stands out because Nvidia is a major player in the world of graphics processing units, GPU’s, whose chips lie at the core of many computers and video game consoles. As the company states in the complaint:

Nvidia was the first company to put all functions necessary to graphics processing onto a single chip.

[The] invention of integrating the entire graphics pipeline onto a single chip – together with multithreaded parallel processing capabilities – were critical steps in the development of the powerful mobile chips we have today. These GPUs enable consumers to run the same types of applications and graphics on their smartphones that they enjoy on their personal computers […]

Nvidia’s technologies are used for many purposes. For example, the same Kepler architecture that powers the fastest supercomputer in the world at the U.S. Oak Ridge National Laboratory can also be found in Nvidia’s mobile processors used to power smart phones, tablet computers, gaming devices and automotive accessories.

Nvidia claims that Samsung and Qualcomm are infringing patents that cover this technology, including US Patent 6198488 (“a graphics pipeline system”) and US Patent 6690372 (“A system, method and article of manufacture are provided for shadow mapping while rendering a primitive in a graphics pipeline”).

The company also notes in the complaint that Qualcomm dominates the global market for smartphone application processors, but that “Qualcomm and Samsung are not GPU pioneers nor are they innovators in  graphics technology.”

Qualcomm actually got into the mobile GPU business in 2009 when it purchased the mobile graphics business that AMD sold off after it purchased Nvidia rival ATI. Samsung, on the other hand, uses the Mali and Imagination cores in some of it’s own mobile processors it has designed.

Nvidia is asking the Delaware court to award unspecified damages, and for the International Trade Commission to impose an import ban on the allegedly infringing products. It will likely be months before Qualcomm and Samsung file a reply, and any significant court rulings are unlikely to occur before 2015.

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