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February 8, 1989


By CBR Staff Writer

Microcode is protected by US copyright law, but Intel Corp failed to prove that NEC Corp actually infringed its copyright in the microcode used in the 8088 and 8086 when it designed its V20 and V30 alternatives and the highly-integrated V40 and V50 variants. That is the landmark ruling by US District Court Judge William Gray on the protracted litigation brought by Intel against NEC. The judge further ruled that Intel had forfeited its copyrights in the 8086 and 8088 by allowing the distribution of chips without a copyright notice on them – a comparatively minor point since he ruled that copyright had anyway not been infringed, but important to others who want to enforce their rights. The judge’s ruling also means that it is not illegal to produce microprocessors that are functionally equivalent to ones containing copyright microcode – but the producer likely needs to be able to demonstrate that the development engineers did not have access to the original copyright code and that the code in the emulating part is substantially different from that in the original. The ruling should mean a big boost in sales of NEC’s its low-end V-series CMOS chips, claimed to be faster and to take less power than Intel’s originals. It may also cause developers to take another look at the 32-bit V70 and its V60 16-bit bus variant, which although not 80386-compatible are upwards compatible with the V30. Needless to say Intel is far from happy, saying it still feels strongly that its copyright was infringed by NEC; it says that it may lodge an appeal.

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