Arm shells Qualcomm's Snapdragon launch party with latest salvo in license war

Softbank's chip designer warns US giant may lose all of its CPU licenses at this rate

Arm sure picked its moment to fire a return salvo in its legal battle with Qualcomm: right in the middle of the latter's latest Snapdragon processor launch.

The Softbank-owned chip designer filed a response [PDF] on Tuesday to Qualcomm's earlier counterclaim against Arm. That filing will have landed on the first day of Qualcomm's Snapdragon Summit, in which the American goliath unveiled its next flagship processor: the Snapdragon 8 Gen 2, which is driven by Arm-provided CPU cores.

Arm sued Qualcomm in the US in August over a CPU licensing dispute, and Qualcomm shot back with surprising allegations that, among other things, Arm was being greedy by demanding more money from Qualcomm and retaliating against Qualcomm's opposition to Nvidia's doomed merger with Arm. Also, that Arm was radically shaking up its licensing model to the detriment of Qualcomm and others.

Qualcomm – a big Arm customer itself – claimed the British chip shop was privately making it known to the semiconductor world that Arm intended to cut off chip designers, such as Qualcomm, from its CPU blueprints. Rather, according to the Snapdragon maker, Arm intended to work directly with (and invoice for royalties) the manufacturers of devices that use Arm-based processors.

See Register passim for the details.

Arm is having none of these accusations, and stressed in its filing that its complaint is simple. According to Arm, when Qualcomm bought startup Nuvia – which was an Arm licensee – Qualcomm should have obtained Arm's permission to absorb Nuvia's custom Arm-compatible CPU cores.

Qualcomm did ask for this permission and ended up not getting it, Arm says, after Arm proposed changes to Qualcomm's own license from Arm to "align" it with the terms of the Nuvia license. Arm admitted Nuvia's license had a higher royalty rate than the one for Qualcomm, and it appears Arm hoped to continue getting those higher royalties after Qualcomm took over the technology from Nuvia.

Nuvia was using its license to design datacenter-grade processors though its CPU cores could apparently be used in chips for other devices. Arm was concerned that Qualcomm would continue to use Nuvia's Phoenix core blueprints in server and personal computing system-on-chips without Arm's blessing.

Qualcomm claims Arm wanted to use this permission requirement as leverage to extract greater royalties from the Snapdragon designer, which Qualcomm sought to resist. It broke off negotiations with Arm in October last year, leading to Arm terminating Nuvia's license and demanding its designs be destroyed.

Bombshell

Arm also now claims that by continuing to use Nuvia's designs, Qualcomm would be producing "an unlicensed product" and would be "materially breaching" its own license with Arm. And if that's so, Arm could pull the rug out from under Qualcomm, terminate that license, and ban it completely from using Arm designs – and Qualcomm's Snapdragon series relies on those Arm Cortex CPU cores.

Qualcomm, meanwhile, asserted that the fine print of the licenses involved did not actually require Qualcomm to ask for permission to absorb Nuvia's tech anyway.

So we have Arm saying the Nuvia license required Arm's permission for Qualcomm to use the designs it acquired with Nuvia. And Qualcomm saying it didn't. Of course the licenses are secret and so far redacted in public court filings.

Arm is suing Qualcomm for breach of contract, and to force the US chip designer to not use Nuvia's Arm-derived designs and technology without permission.

"There is no uncertainty that Arm's consent was required but not obtained for the transfer of Nuvia's rights, including through Qualcomm's acquisition of the company," Arm stated in its latest filing.

"Faced with Qualcomm's refusal to respect Arm's licenses, Arm brought this lawsuit to protect its rights … and the Arm technology ecosystem," the filing added. "These facts, not any misguided allegations about prior merger issues or purported changes in Arm's business model, are the reason and basis for Arm's claims."

An Arm spokesperson told us on Tuesday evening, "Qualcomm's counterclaim is nothing more than a desperate attempt to distract from the core issue: the company's blatant violation of the terms of the Nuvia license agreement and continued use of unlicensed Arm-based technology.

"As we've said before, Arm is focused on protecting the Arm ecosystem and partners who rely on our intellectual property and innovative designs, and we are seeking to enforce Qualcomm's obligation to destroy and stop using the Nuvia designs that were derived from Arm's technology."

As to Qualcomm's claims that Arm was dramatically shifting its business model, the spokesperson added:

The allegations by Qualcomm of changes to Arm's business model are misinformed, misleading and intended to distract Arm's customers from the reality that Qualcomm has misappropriated Arm's technology in violation of the express terms of the relevant contracts. Access to essential technology will not be limited, and Arm will continue to work with, and provide our technology to, both semiconductor companies and OEMs.

Spokespeople for Qualcomm were not able to comment on the latest filing. ®

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