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Intel expands Via lawsuit, nabbing its customers

Intel expands its legal war against Via Technologies by filing a bevy of lawsuits against the Taiwanese chipset maker as well as companies that have adopted Via's products.

Intel has expanded its legal war against Via Technologies by filing a bevy of lawsuits against the Taiwanese chipset maker as well as companies that have adopted Via's products.

Three different sets of lawsuits have been filed against Via, its partners, and customers in San Jose, the United Kingdom, and Singapore. Although the specific claims and defendants vary from suit to suit, all of the actions share a similar theme.

All relate back to a contested licensing agreement between the two companies. Intel claims that Via violated the agreement. Via contends Intel merely wants to stem the growing popularity of Via's chipsets for Celeron and Pentium III computers. A companion to the main processor, a chipset essentially functions as the communications hub for the internal components of a computer

Interestingly, the new lawsuits do not target Via's big customers, which include IBM, Hewlett-Packard, and Micron Electronics.

Instead, Intel is suing First International Computer (FIC), which makes motherboards, and Everex, a once-major computer brand that has seen its market share plummet. Via, Everex, and FIC share major investors and all three have worked together to bring products to market, said a Via source. FIC historically has been one of Via's biggest customers.

The lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court in San Jose, for instance, alleges that specific Everex computers and specific FIC "motherboards," or main circuit boards, violate a number of Intel patents, according to court papers. The computers and motherboards in question depend upon the Via chipsets, according to sources and independent research.

Intel is not suing the companies for using Via's products. Instead, the claim alleges that Everex and FIC violated system-level patents in creating their Via-based motherboards and computers.

The U.K. and Singapore actions are more direct. The motherboard makers violated Intel rights by trying to "dispose of" or sell the disputed Via chipsets. Via is named in the U.K. and Singapore actions, but not in the latest U.S. lawsuit. Intel filed a suit against the company in June.

Intel is filing the suits to protect its intellectual property, according to spokesman Chuck Mulloy. "Via does not have a license to the 'P6' bus," he said, referring to the data pathway that connects Intel processors and peripheral components, such as chipsets or memory.

Mulloy declined to comment on any connection between the Everex suit and the Via suit, and declined to comment on whether Intel is looking to see whether IBM or HP has committed similar violations. Typically, larger companies have cross-licensing agreements which can insulate them.

The Via-Intel saga began late last year, when the former signed an agreement to license the P6 bus from Intel. Via sought the license to build chipsets for computers using Celeron, Pentium II, and III processors. Disputes quickly arose between the two companies and Intel filed suit against Via in June.

The source of the conflict stems from Via's promotion of a 133-MHz system bus chipset, sources have said. Until recently, all Intel chipsets came with a slower, 100-MHz bus. In early spring, Via began to tell customers that it was planning to release a chipset with a 133-MHz bus months before Intel. This early release was apparently a violation of the licensing agreement.

The Via chipset also works with faster 133-MHz memory, a speedier and relatively cheap technology Intel won't provide parts for until next year.

Rather than back down, Via has released its chipset. Although Via mostly worked with second- or third-tier customers, it recently saw its business rachet up when Intel announced that it was delaying its 820 chipset, which would have better competed against Via's offerings. After the 820 got delayed, Micron, IBM and HP all announced that they had become Via customers.