The US Federal Trade Commission is sniffing around Rambus and Sun to see if it can find any evidence that both companies failed to disclose relevant patents pending and those already held while working with industry organisations to set standards.
Essentially it wants to find out if they used their participation in the standards definition process to ensure companies would later have to pay them money to use those standards, USA Today reports, citing sources familiar with the investigations.
In Rambus' case, the FTC shouldn't have too tough a time of it. The memory developer has, after all, been found guilty by a jury in the US District Court of Virginia of committing such a fraudulent act in its dealings with JEDEC, the chip business' guardian of standards.
Rambus was judged to have deliberately withheld from fellow JEDEC SDRAM Panel members that it had applied for patents for key SDRAM technologies. Rambus was obliged, as a panel member, to disclose such interests. Later it sought royalties from memory makers on the basis of its ownership of those patents - and sued Infineon, Micron and Hyundai when they refused to cough up.
Sun is accused of the same behaviour. It is alleged to have failed to mention that it held patents on key aspects of memory add-in module design while participating in the development of a standard module format.
"This is an area where there is a lot of impact on consumer welfare, and you can get a lot of bang for your enforcement buck," said FTC antitrust chief Joseph Simons, cited by USA Today. Simons would not discuss specific cases, the paper added. And that includes saying whether it is - or isn't - investigating Sun and/or Rambus.
"You lose all of the upsides of that common standard-setting effort if someone holds patents that surface after the standard is adopted," said former FTC antitrust chief William Baer who, perhaps not coincidentally, is working with what USA Today describes as "a chipmaker fighting Rambus".
The FTC has had its eye on Rambus for some time, and was last heard to be talking to folk who'd been involved in JEDEC's SDRAM deliberations this past February.
That said, since the FTC won't comment on specific case or confirm who it is investigating, it's hard to be sure where any examination of Sun and Rambus will lead. ®
USA Today: FTC probing Sun Microsystems