AMD has released a statement regarding a theft of its graphics IP and what may have been a subsequent attempt to blackmail the company. The statement reads:
At AMD, data security and the protection of our intellectual property are a priority. In December 2019, we were contacted by someone who claimed to have test files related to a subset of our current and future graphics products, some of which were recently posted online, but have since been taken down.
While we are aware the perpetrator has additional files that have not been made public, we believe the stolen graphics IP is not core to the competitiveness or security of our graphics products. We are not aware of the perpetrator possessing any other AMD IP.
We are working closely with law enforcement officials and other experts as a part of an ongoing criminal investigation.
That’s all the detail we have right now, but these kinds of efforts rarely end well for the parties involved. AMD, Intel, Nvidia, and other semiconductor companies have often cooperated to prosecute individuals who have tried this kind of stunt before. While it might seem ideal for one company to attempt to get a leg up on another by directly copying its product design, this kind of trick is fraught with legal peril for the company that tries it.
In 1995, engineer Bill Gaede stole technological IP from both Intel and AMD to share with China, Cuba, and Iran. AMD and Intel also cooperated in the investigation of a former AMD and Intel engineer, Biswamohan Pani, leading to his conviction in 2012. In that instance, AMD was the potential recipient of stolen Intel information, but the firm acted promptly and in full cooperation with the FBI to ensure no Intel IP wound up in their own products.
Clean-room engineering is the process of reverse-engineering a product and then recreating it without infringing on any copyrights, but it doesn’t apply to patents and it wouldn’t protect Intel, AMD, etc from a lawsuit preventing them from selling their own hardware on the basis of patent infringement. These kinds of lawsuits have caused major problems for AMD before. Back in the 1980s, Intel successfully delayed the availability of AMD’s rival 386 processor by claiming the company had violated its license agreement with Intel (which, according to Intel, didn’t cover anything past the 80286).
There’s no practical way to prevent an individual employee from moving from Intel to AMD or vice-versa, but it does these companies little good to risk incorporating critical technology from a competitor into their own products. Imagine if Intel was found to have infringed a major Nvidia patent with its Xe GPU. If that happened, Nvidia would have grounds to push for an injunction preventing Intel from selling the product. Alternately, Intel might be forced to remove critical functionality from its own card in a manner that would obviate any point to shipping it in the first place.
We’ve reached out to various sources within AMD and several have quietly confirmed that the company is framing the situation accurately. The IP in question wasn’t core to either the competitiveness or the security of future AMD products.
Top image credit: Raysonho @ Open Grid Scheduler / Grid Engine / CC0 1.0
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