updated 5/5/2004 9:35:20 PM ET 2004-05-06T01:35:20

Chip designer Rambus Inc. sued several major computer memory makers Wednesday, claiming they illegally conspired to limit production and raise prices in an effort to block widespread adoption of Rambus’ technology.

The civil antitrust lawsuit, filed in California Superior Court in San Francisco, seeks an injunction and damages that could total more than $1 billion. It names Hynix Semiconductor, Infineon Technologies, Micron Technology and Siemens AG, which spun off Infineon.

The suit is the latest in a long history of disputes among Rambus, chip makers and the federal government over patents, standards and alleged anticompetitive behavior. Rambus licenses its technology to manufacturers who produce the physical chips and pay royalties.

The latest suit is largely based on evidence acquired as part of the Federal Trade Commission’s 2002 complaint that Rambus behaved illegally when it got chip makers to include its patented technology into standards so that it could collect royalties.

The FTC’s chief administrative law judge, Stephen J. McGuire, ruled in favor of Rambus earlier this year. Though the FTC is appealing the decision, his written opinion cited several instances of apparent collusion against Rambus.

“We can’t ignore the strength of this evidence,” said Rambus general counsel John Danforth. “We have a fiduciary obligation to our shareholders to do something about this.”

Micron and Infineon issued statements saying Rambus’ claims were without merit.

“This is yet another example highlighting Rambus’ pattern of using litigation as its only real business model,” said Christoph Liedtke, an Infineon spokesman.

Other companies named in the lawsuit did not immediately return telephone messages or e-mail seeking comment.

In its lawsuit, Rambus cites a series of e-mails dating from 1996 in which executives at Hynix, Siemens and Micron discussed the need to adopt an alternative to Rambus’ designs and to drive “Rambus-designed chips out of the computer-memory market.”

In 1996, Intel had selected Rambus memory for its next-generation microprocessor. Within two years, major PC makers had followed Intel’s lead.

But, according to the lawsuit, the chip makers did not want to pay Rambus royalties and did not want Intel dictating their business decisions. Rambus claims the chip makers “collectively manipulated and controlled the total quantity” of Rambus memory.

Intel and the PC makers eventually pulled their support of Rambus and adopted alternative memory designs.

“After having effectively eliminated Rambus’ memory chip design as a competing mainstream technology, (the) defendants and others were able to — and did — charge supracompetitive prices for their alternative design chips,” according to the lawsuit.

In the lawsuit, Rambus alleges the chip makers conspired to restrict output, fix prices and monopolize the industry. It also alleges the companies interfered with Rambus’ “prospective economic advantage” and competed unfairly — a violation of California’s business code.

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