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Intel sues Via as chipset wars begin anew

Chipmaker Intel has filed a patent-infringement lawsuit against Via Technologies and will seek to have Via's new Pentium 4 chipsets pulled off the market.

Chipmaker Intel has filed a patent-infringement lawsuit against Via Technologies and will seek to have Via's new Pentium 4 chipsets pulled off the market.

Santa Clara, Calif.-based Intel on Friday filed suit in U.S. District Court in Delaware. The lawsuit alleges that Via's P4X266 and P4M266 chipsets, which were released earlier this month, infringe on five Intel patents.

S3 Graphics is also named as a defendant. S3 Graphics is a joint venture created by Via and Sonicblue--a graphics chipmaker turned consumer electronics company--to help develop chipsets.

Via's two chipsets essentially allow computer makers to put DDR DRAM, a high-speed form of standard computer memory, inside computers with Pentium 4 chips. Currently, only Rambus memory can be used inside Pentium 4 computers, although chipsets that let PC makers use ordinary SDRAM will come out Monday.

The complaint seeks damages, as well as a permanent injunction that would effectively prevent Via from selling the chipset.

The two companies are no strangers to each other when it comes to lawsuits. Intel filed a similar series of lawsuits against Via in 1999 after the company came out with a Pentium III chipset. Via, which saw its sales zoom with the new chipset, alleged that Intel was merely trying to clamp down on a successful competitor.

"Intel sued Cyrix five times, and they never won," Wen Chi Chen, Via's CEO and a former Intel executive, said in 1999. "Intel--they just love lawsuits."

That suit was effectively settled in July 2000. In the new lawsuit, Intel has alleged that Taipei, Taiwan-based Via does not have a license to build a Pentium 4 chipset.

For its part, Via has said several times that the chipsets do not violate any of Intel's patents. Although Via has steadfastly refused to publicly explain its legal theory, sources say the company believes it has legal insulation because S3 Inc. signed a limited chipset license with Intel.

The legal intricacy can be tough to follow. Intel originally signed a license with S3 Inc., which morphed into Sonicblue. Subsequently, Sonicblue and Via created a company in the Cayman Islands called S3 Graphics. Via is said to own roughly half or more of S3 Graphics and controls its management.

The suit will likely hinge on whether the chipset license survived the legal transformations. Typically, however, technology licenses cannot be transferred or granted to other parties.

Chuck Mulloy, an Intel spokesman, said that neither Via nor the Sonicblue-Via joint venture has a license.

"We believe these parts do infringe on our patents," he said.

In addition, the two Via chipsets do not "meet the requirements of the S3 license," said Mulloy, without specifying further. S3 Inc. was likely licensed a right to make Pentium 4 chipsets with integrated graphics, a feature the Via chipsets don't have.

Theoretically, Intel could also sue any computer maker or motherboard manufacturer that incorporates the new chipsets into PCs, Mulloy added.

Acer Labs, SiS and ATI Technologies all have Pentium 4 chipset licenses and are expected to release products soon.