Layout-designs of integrated circuits

Layout-designs of integrated circuits

A layout-design of an integrated circuit is the three-dimensional disposition of the elements of an integrated circuit and some or all of the interconnections of the integrated circuit or such three-dimensional disposition prepared for an integrated circuit intended for manufacture.

 

An integrated circuit (IC) is an electronic circuit in which the elements of the circuit are integrated into a medium, and which functions as a unit. Currently the medium used to create this unit is a solid semiconductor such as silicon. The circuit is integrated into the piece of silicon, commonly called a “chip” or a “silicon chip”.  The terms “integrated circuit”, “semiconductor” and “silicon chip” are used synonymously as commercial ICs are usually fabricated from silicon semiconductors.

 

In United States intellectual property law, a “mask work” is a two or three-dimensional layout or topography of an integrated circuit (IC or “chip”), i.e. the arrangement on a chip of semiconductor devices such as transistors and passive electronic components such as resistors and interconnections. The layout is called a mask work because, in photolithographic processes, the multiple etched layers within actual ICs are each created using a mask, called the photomask, to permit or block the light at specific locations, sometimes for hundreds of chips on a wafer simultaneously.

 

Because of the functional nature of the mask geometry, the designs cannot be effectively protected under copyright law (except perhaps as decorative art). Similarly, because individual lithographic mask works are not clearly protectable subject matter, they also cannot be effectively protected under patent law, although any processes implemented in the work may be patentable. So since the 1990s, national governments have been granting copyright-like exclusive rights conferring time-limited exclusivity to reproduction of a particular layout.

 

A diplomatic conference was held at Washington, D.C., in 1989, which adopted a Treaty on Intellectual Property in Respect of Integrated Circuits, also called the Washington Treaty or IPIC Treaty. The Treaty, signed at Washington on May 26, 1989, is open to States Members of WIPO or the United Nations and to intergovernmental organizations meeting certain criteria. The Treaty has been incorporated by reference into the TRIPS Agreement of the World Trade Organization (WTO), subject to the following modifications: the term of protection is at least 10 (rather than eight) years from the date of filing an application or of the first commercial exploitation in the world, but Members may provide a term of protection of 15 years from the creation of the layout-design; the exclusive right of the right-holder extends also to articles incorporating integrated circuits in which a protected layout-design is incorporated, in so far as it continues to contain an unlawfully reproduced layout-design; the circumstances in which layout-designs may be used without the consent of right-holders are more restricted; certain acts engaged in unknowingly will not constitute infringement.

 

The IPIC Treaty is currently not in force, but was partially integrated into the TRIPS agreement.

Article 35 of TRIPS in Relation to the IPIC Treaty states:

Members agree to provide protection to the layout-designs (topographies) of integrated circuits (referred to in this Agreement as “layout-designs”) in accordance with Articles 2 through 7 (other than paragraph 3 of Article 6), Article 12 and paragraph 3 of Article 16 of the Treaty on Intellectual Property in Respect of Integrated Circuits and, in addition, to comply with the following provisions.

 

Under the IPIC Treaty, each Contracting Party is obliged to secure, throughout its territory, exclusive rights in layout-designs (topographies) of integrated circuits, whether or not the integrated circuit concerned is incorporated in an article. Such obligation applies to layout-designs that are original in the sense that they are the result of their creators’ own intellectual effort and are not commonplace among creators of layout designs and manufacturers of integrated circuits at the time of their creation.

The Contracting Parties must, as a minimum, consider the following acts to be unlawful if performed without the authorization of the holder of the right: the reproduction of the lay-out design, and the importation, sale or other distribution for commercial purposes of the layout-design or an integrated circuit in which the layout-design is incorporated. However, certain acts may be freely performed for private purposes or for the sole purpose of evaluation, analysis, research or teaching.

 

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Rajin Ahmed

Ph.D. (Fellow), Advocate. Member: Bangladesh Intellectual Property Law Society (BIPLS). Member: Society for Information and Research on Business Intellectual Inventions (SIRBII). Associate: Intellectual Property Association of Bangladesh

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