Chinese chip slinger found not guilty of stealing memory secrets from Micron

Fujian Jinhua escapes prosecution tho remains on the US sanctions list

A Chinese chipmaker accused of stealing DRAM secrets from American memory manufacturer Micron has been found not guilty, bringing a five-year long legal saga to an end.

Following a bench trial in northern California, Fujian Jinhua Integrated Circuit Company was cleared [PDF] by federal district Judge Maxine Chesney. The biz had faced three charges brought by the US Department of Justice, namely counts of conspiracy to commit economic espionage, conspiracy to commit theft of trade secrets, and actual economic espionage. 

The top-line summary is: Judge Chesney concluded prosecutors failed to prove the Chinese state-sponsored company misappropriated data related to Micron's DRAM designs, according to court reports.

Oddly enough, Taiwanese chipmaker United Microelectronics Corporation (UMC), which was accused of acting as the actual thief in this case and handing purloined blueprints off to Fujian Jinhua, pleaded guilty in 2020. 

UMC was thus ordered to pay a $60 million fine – reduced from a possible $20 billion – for its role in recruiting former Micron staffers and soliciting them to steal DRAM designs to be passed off to Jinhua. 

The three UMC recruits who allegedly passed the DRAM secrets were also indicted by US officials in 2018. All three still face charges in the same case in which UMC pleaded guilty and Jinhua was acquitted. Two of the three individuals charged by the US have already been found guilty by Taiwanese courts of stealing Micron's DRAM secrets. 

So, Jinhua is off the hook, while UMC copped to stealing the designs via some ex-Micron workers to give to Jinhua.

Micron's out of the fight, too

The latest developments in the DRAM saga relate to charges leveled against Jinhua, UMC and, the three accused individuals by the US Department of Justice in 2018, but that's hardly the whole story.

Micron also sued UMC and Jinhua in a civil case in late 2017, accusing the pair of theft of trade secrets under the US Defend Trade Secrets Act passed into law the prior year. 

UMC and Jinhua took Micron to court in China in January 2018, accusing the US-based firm of patent infringement related to DDR4, SSDs, and graphics card memory. Chinese courts later banned Micron from doing business in the Middle Kingdom, leading to the US Department of Commerce labeling Jinhua a national security risk and adding it to the department's Entity List, effectively barring it from interactions with American firms without special permission being granted by Uncle Sam. 

Since then, however, Micron and Fujian Jinhua have made up - at least somewhat - reaching a settlement in December 2023 that ended Micron's original case against its DRAM antagonists.

"Micron previously reached a global settlement agreement with Fujian Jinhua Integrated Circuit Company, and the companies have dismissed all litigation between them," Micron told us when asked about the not guilty verdict against Jinhua. "We have no further comment."

It's not immediately clear whether the December settlement, which was also overseen by Judge Chesney, is related to Jinhua being found not guilty in the DoJ case. We've asked lawyers for both sides to get additional clarification. ®

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