How do protect the design of my computer chip?

How do protect the design of my computer chip?

Computer chips are the factories of the internet age.  While a factory is made of brick and mortar, a computer chip is made of semiconductors.  The design of factories and computer chips are both closely guarded secrets because the person with the best design can dominate the market.  Factories are can be reproduced using blue prints and computer chips can be reproduced using mask works.

A mask work is a series of related images, however fixed or encoded (1) that have or represent the predetermined three dimensional pattern of metallic, insulating, or semiconductor material present or removed from the layers of a semiconductor chip product; and (2) in which series the relation of the images to one another is that each image has the pattern of the surface of one form of the semiconductor chip product.

For a long time computer chip designs were not given any special protection, competitors were free to copy each other designs. In 1984 the Semiconductor Chip Protection Act (SCPA) established a new type of intellectual property protection for mask works that are fixed in semiconductor chips. It did so by amending title 17 of the United States Code, adding chapter nine.

Protection for mask works is not copyright protection. The legal requirements for mask work protection differ from those for copyright protection in terms of eligibility for protection, ownership rights, registration procedures, term of protection, and remedies for rights violations. The SCPA protects the three-dimensional images or patterns formed on or in the layers of metallic, insulating, or semiconductor material and fixed in a semiconductor chip product, that is, the “topography” of the “chip.”

The protection for mask works is different from other copyrighted images because mask works are purely functional features, that are protected, provided that the mask work is neither dictated by a particular electronic function nor one of only a few available design choices that will accomplish that function. Protection under the SCPA does not extend to any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery associated with
a mask work, regardless of the form in which it is described, explained, illustrated, or embodied in a mask work (17 U.S.C. §902 (c)).

To be granted protection for a mask work under the SCPA , the mask work must be registered with the Untied States Copyright Office within 2 years of commercial exploitation of the mask work.  Protection for the mask work lasts for 10 years from the date of registration.

During the term of protection, the owner of a mask work has the exclusive right to:
1 to reproduce the mask work by optical, electronic, or any other means;
2 to import or distribute a semiconductor chip product in which the mask work is embodied; and
3 to induce or knowingly to cause another person to do any of the acts described in number 1 and number 2 above.

Registration of a mask work grants the owner board rights, but there are some limits. The SCPA permits reverse engineering of a mask work solely for the purposes of teaching, analyzing, or evaluating the concepts or techniques embodied in the mask work or in the circuitry, logic flow, or organization of components used in the mask work.

The person who performs legitimate reverse engineering can incorporate the results in an original mask work that is made to be distributed. Purchasers also obtain a right arising from the first sale of semiconductor chips. The SCPA specifies that purchasers of semiconductor chip products have the right to use and resell them freely but not to reproduce them without the permission of the owner of the mask work embodied in the semiconductor chip product.

Despite these limitations registration of a mask work is a cheap and easy way to protect the investment made by a computer chip designer.  The Semiconductor Chip Protection Act provides computer chip designers an easy and inexpensive method of protecting their mask works from unauthorized copying.

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