In chips, the patent war is hot and Korea isn't winning
Chipmakers around the world are filing more patent applications hoping to get an upper hand in the industry of the future.
The latest technology showing up in patent filings is the Gate All Around (GAA) technique.
The GAA architecture is designed to enhance the transistor density of chips and improve energy efficiency. The design allows for more expanded and flexible current flows across channels at transistor gates compared to the widely used finFET technique.
TSMC’s global patent applications related to GAA in 2020 numbered 519, while Samsung Electronics filed 217 such applications in 2020, according to the Korean Intellectual Property Office (KIPO) on Wednesday.
Samsung started mass production of 3-nanometer chips last month, becoming the world’s first company to produce a GAA-based 3-nanometer chip.
Three-nanometer chips promise a 23-percent performance increase, a 45-percent power consumption reduction and a 16-percent decline in the area needed compared to 5-nanometer chips.
While Samsung’s achievement may give it an advantage over Taiwan’s TSMC, the sharp rise in TSMC's patent applications shows that the company is hardly giving up.
Having as many patents as possible is considered a strategic plus in technology industries.
TSMC’s share of semiconductor patent applications globally outstrips Samsung Electronics'.
From 2007 to 2020, the accumulated number of patent applications by TSMC was 1,544, while Samsung Electronics filed 905. Among the 1,544 patents by TSMC, more than half were filed between 2019 and 2020.
During the period from 2007 to 2020, TSMC’s share of the total number of patent applications globally was 31 percent, followed by Intel's 24 percent and IBM's 19 percent.
Samsung Electronics came in fourth with 18 percent.
“TMSC’s patent applications sharply rose after Samsung Electronics applied GAA to the manufacturing of 3-nanometer chips in 2017,” said a spokesperson for KIPO.
TSMC’s market share in foundries was 53.6 percent in the first quarter, while Samsung Electronics' was 16.3 percent.
The number of TSMC GAA-related patent applications filed with the KIPO surged recently. The figure increased from nine in 2018 to 89 in 2020. The total number of TSMC patent applications in Korea rose from 24 in 2007 to 588 in 2020.
The GAA-related patents recently filed by TSMC include semiconductor manufacturing methods.
The semiconductor industry's views on TSMC’s filing of patent applications in recent years are split.
Some say this will not affect Samsung Electronics’s mass production of high-spec products at all, as technologies are applied differently by each company.
But some raise worries about the longer-term threat to Samsung.
“Patent registrations of other competing companies may act as an obstacle when Samsung Electronics tries to advance its technology,” said a spokesperson for a semiconductor company who asked not to be named.
"It is evident that TSMC is keeping an eye on Samsung Electronics as it has been filing more patent applications in Korea even though Korea is not its major market."
“Patents are an index that shows the company’s technological capability,” said Lee Chang-han, vice president of the Korea Semiconductor Industry Association.
“More patents would provide a stronger foundation for the future.”
While these chipmakers are eager to file as many patents as possible, where they file them is also important. The number of patent applications filed by both Samsung Electronics and TSMC from 2019 to 2020 dropped in China but rose in the United States.
TSMC is also actively cooperating with Japanese companies.
The company is currently constructing a chip plant in Kumamoto, southern Japan, with $3.5 billion in subsidies from the Japanese government. It also opened an R&D center in Ibaraki near Tokyo in June.
According to the KIPO, TSMC became more competitive after collaborating with Japanese companies on chip packaging.
Competition over patents is notable in memory chips.
Samsung Electronics and SK hynix are two of the major players in memory chips, but competition is rising between major global companies when it comes to DRAM alternatives and processing-in-memory (PIM) chips.
Samsung Electronics and Micron are the top two leading companies in patents for PIM chips.
The DRAM alternatives, such as FRAM, are led by Micron and MRAM by TSMC.
As the patent war continues, some say Korea has to beef up its patent approval system. Its experts examining applications are overworked.
“As patents are about professional technology, examinations should be done by people who have worked in the related industry and technology,” said Lee Chang-han.
In Korea, patent application examiners vetted 206 applications each in 2020, compared to 58 for patent office examiners in Europe. In the U.S. the number is 73, in China 91 and in Japan 164.
A Korean examiner spends an average of only 10.8 hours examining a patent application compared to 17.7 hours in Japan, 22 hours in China and 27.4 hours in the United States.
The number of technology types that each examiner is expected to handle is 81.1 for Korea, the highest among these five major countries.
“More patent applications are coming in, but there are delays in the examination process as there are not enough examiners,” said a spokesperson for KIPO.
“We will hire retirees from the relevant industries as examiners in order to increase the quality of patent examination,” said Lee In-sil, commissioner of the KIPO during a press conference on July 7.
BY CHOI EUN-KYUNG [firstname.lastname@example.org]