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Issue 3, 2013

Light Bulbs, Lawyers and IP: Who’s Right?

At a recent Board of Directors meeting for one of the standards organizations, a fellow board member asked, “How many IP people does it take to change a light bulb?” Depending on how you interpret “IP”, you could give a funny (or not!) answer and he could choose one of the other meanings of IP to give you a different answer. That got me thinking about how often we overload industry terms, even within the context of engineering or even in the narrower context of engineering standards.

I hear “IP” thrown around too often in many conversations, so now I start instinctively searching for the correct meaning whenever someone says “IP.” Here is what I have collected so far:

IP stands for Intellectual Property, no question about it. To a semiconductor System-on-Chip (SoC) designer, it means a building block that has certain functionality and other characteristics that meet the requirements of the design. SoC designers consider their designs to be composed of various IP blocks and some proprietary logic. For example, an SoC may contain an ARM processor, an image processor, an ARC® Audio subsystem, a DDR3 memory controller, PCIe bus interface and a Bluetooth interface, in addition to proprietary power management logic and some data security stuff. Each of these IP blocks may come from different suppliers.

The reason it came to be called IP is because someone else created it (i.e. their intellectual property) and you are using it. Other technical fields often refer to such approaches as software libraries – as in graphics or networking libraries – or an on-line transaction processing library. You buy those libraries in much the same way that you would buy a semiconductor design block. If you get the IP in source form (e.g. System Verilog code), we refer to them as Soft IP. You may have the right to modify it to suit your application requirements. You may have the rights to implement it in one specific semiconductor process or in many different processes. You may also have the right to use it for only one design (end product) or for many different products. You may have the right to create one or more derivative IPs and re-sell it as your own IP.

Talking about rights brings me to the second use of IP, and that’s where the lawyers come in. Whenever certain “IP rights” related topics come up in a standards committee, one of our colleagues often reminds us of the IANAL (I am not a lawyer) caveat, so always consult your legal department in these matters.

There are many forms of intellectual property that every business owns. These include ideas, business processes, trade secrets, trademarks, copyrights, patents, etc. When you own them, you have the right to not only use them in development of your products and services, but also the right to license them to others. Essentially, your IP portfolio is an integral and strategic business tool at your disposal. It can provide you the protection and the platform to differentiate your products and services from your competitors in the marketplace.

When you participate in standards development activities, you also must be vigilant about essential patents your company owns. It would also be prudent for you to be aware of possible essential patents your competitors own and may try to insert certain concepts into the standard. This is when you stop cracking lawyer jokes, become best friends with them and expand your vocabulary to include RAND, FRAND, provisional patent, apparatus, filing date, etc.

But who says IP only stands for Intellectual Property? Notwithstanding the small community of semiconductor IP designers and intellectual property lawyers, other people around the world are sure to have heard of the real IP – the Internet Protocol – in its various forms. For example, they may know the IP Address of their router or their corporate website (yes, that number with not one, not two, but three decimal points!), or some may have heard of TCP/IP (Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol) without ever knowing what it stands for. A few computer geeks of the 80s and 90s (and, with due respect, real networking pioneers) can even tell you the ins and outs of IPv4 and IPv6, long before IEEE 802.3 (Ethernet) and 802.11 (Wi-Fi) became household words. Those who were thinking of e-commerce and encryption may even tell you a story about IPSec, a packet processing layer security protocol from the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF). Continuing that line of thought about standards, there is IEEE 1734 about Quality Metrics for IP, a working group called P1735 for IP encryption, and an Accellera standard called IP Taging.

Then there was the Inter-Process communication, Image Processor and Information Processing, all IPs in their own domains, but I digress at this point as it is well outside my comfort zone of semiconductor design and EDA tools. Of course, there is the IP-XACT standard (IEEE 1685), but no one really knows what it stands for! Dare I talk about the organization OCP-IP, where IP actually stands for “International Partnership,” but the organization provides On-Chip Protocol (an IP by itself) that helps integrate several other semiconductor IPs while building an SoC. So, if “IP” doesn’t mean the same thing to you, you’re not alone.

Light Bulbs, Lawyers and IP: Who’s Right?

Confusing? Complex? Outright screwy, isn’t it? Well, that brings me back to the lighter side. Here are a few of the variations I heard about how many IP people it really takes to change a light bulb.

  • How many IP lawyers does it take to change a light bulb?
    • “You must be Wrong because they have all the (IP) Rights!”
    • “Edison’s (light bulb) patent has expired …”
    • “He can’t figure it out if you give him a left-threaded bulb. He only does Rights!”
  • How many semiconductor IP developers does it take to change a light bulb?
    • “It’s an electrical problem, not semiconductor …”
  • How many IPv6 developers does it take to change a light bulb?
    • “There are none …. They all do IEEE 802.”
  • How many IP-XACT engineers does it take to change a light bulb?
    • “It’s somewhat fuzzy, not exact …”
  • How many IPSec engineers does it take to change a light bulb?
    • “Shhh. It’s a secret.”
And my favorite,
  • How many IP Standards Developers does it take to change a light bulb?
    • “Go form a committee … come back in a year or two!”

More Information

About the Author
Yatin Trivedi is the Director of Standards and Interoperability Programs at Synopsys. He represents Synopsys on the Standards Board and the Standards Education Committee (SEC) of the IEEE Standards Association (IEEE-SA), the Education Activities Board (EAB) of IEEE, the Board of Directors of IEEE Industry Standards and Technology Organization (IEEE-ISTO), and the Board of Directors of Accellera. He chairs the SEC and serves as the Editor-in-Chief of the Standards Education Committee eZine, vice chair of Design Automation Standards Committee (DASC), member of IEEE-SA's NesCom, AudCom and ICCom governance committees, and member of the Corporate Advisory Group (CAG). He manages interoperability initiatives as part of the corporate marketing and strategic alliances group and works closely with the Synopsys University program. Yatin is a Senior Member of the IEEE and serves as an ABET Program Evaluator.

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