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Nvidia patent suits target latest Samsung devices

The chipmaker is accusing Samsung and Qualcomm of infringing its patents related to the company's core graphics technology.

Ben Fox Rubin/CNET

Nvidia on Thursday fired the latest bullet in the widespread battle over patents, accusing Samsung and Qualcomm of ripping off its graphics technology for their smartphone chips.

The Santa Clara, Calif., company, best known for making graphics chips for PCs, filed separate suits involving seven of its patents with the International Trade Commission and US District Court in Delaware.

Nvidia said it asked the ITC to block shipments of several Samsung smartphones and tablets to the US, and requested the district court award damages for the alleged infringement. The products involved include several major devices from Samsung -- the largest smartphone maker in the world -- including the Galaxy Note Edge and Note 4 smartphones, which Samsung unveiled Wednesday, as well as the company's flagship Galaxy S5 and Galaxy S4 phones. The Note 3 was also mentioned, as were several Samsung tablet computers, including the Galaxy Tab S, Tab 2 and Note Pro .

Since the litigation involves hundreds of millions of Samsung devices, potential damages from a successful suit could be huge for Nvidia. "The volume here alone makes the potential very significant," David Shannon, Nvidia's chief administrative officer, said in an interview.

Still, the chipmaker declined to specify how much it expects it could gain, instead deferring to the courts to decide exactly how much its patents are worth. If any of the litigation moves forward, an ITC trial wouldn't happen until mid-2015 and a US district trial wouldn't come for another two to three years, Nvidia said.

The suits stem from Nvidia's more concerted push to license its graphics technology in the mobile segment, a strategy the company discussed publicly in June last year. Since then, Shannon said Nvidia has engaged with several "significant players in the mobile space" about its patents, but hasn't yet announced any new licensing deals.

After several years of negotiations with Samsung, Nvidia wasn't any closer to an agreement, as Samsung claimed the patent issue was their suppliers' problem, Nvidia said.

"We just made no progress and they've not put a real offer on the table," Nvidia co-founder and CEO Jen-Hsun Huang said in a conference call with analysts Thursday. "When you've been using technology for free for a long time, I guess it's hard to sign up for a large and significant license agreement."

Samsung has tended to use Qualcomm's processors in its high-end devices. The Note 4, for instance, uses a Snapdragon 805 chip. Samsung also uses its own Exynos chips in some models, particularly those sold in Korea. The devices mentioned in the suit involve Qualcomm's Adreno, ARM's Mali or Imagination's PowerVR graphics architectures, which are three of Nvidia's main competitors in mobile graphics. Focusing on those major players signals the potential that many more companies may face exposure to Nvidia's licensing push.

In a blog post Thursday, Shannon outlined the uses of the seven patents involved, saying they include "our foundational invention, the GPU, which puts onto a single chip all the functions necessary to process graphics and light up screens," as well as technologies that allow "every processing unit in the GPU to be used for different purposes" and allow "non-experts to program sophisticated graphics."

"We are aware of the complaints and are evaluating them," Qualcomm said. Samsung declined to comment.

Nvidia has been involved in patent litigation many times in the past, both as plaintiff and defendant. Perhaps the highest profile spat involved claims against Intel. The PC chip giant agreed in early 2011 to pay Nvidia more than $250 million a year for six years to license Nvidia's various patents.

Nvidia's suit against Samsung and Qualcomm "is the classic 'license or be sued' thing," said Pat Moorhead, principal analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy. "Nvidia has had discussions [with the defendants] about very basic, core GPU patents. We'll have to see what happens."

Samsung is no stranger to patent suits. The company has been battling Apple for the past several years over technology used in its smartphones and tablets. The two companies in August agreed to settle all disputes outside the US, but their lawsuits continue in the country. Most recently, a district court judge in Northern California, ruled not to place a permanent injunction against Samsung for selling certain older-model smartphones, such as the original Galaxy Note. Apple has appealed that decision.

Qualcomm, which generates a significant amount of its profit from licensing technology related to 3G CDMA wireless patents, is currently facing licensing issues with Chinese handset vendors. The company in July said it's in a dispute with a licensee in China and believes some Chinese licensees are underreporting their sales of licensed products. Those issues have dampened Qualcomm's sales projections and weakened its stock price. The Chinese government also currently is conducting an anti-monopoly investigation into Qualcomm's business practices.

Updated at 2:45 p.m. PT and 4:55 p.m. PT with additional details and statements from Nvidia.