Mikele Bicolli
Nov 14, 2023

YMTC's Legal Action Against Micron: A Patent Infringement Dispute amid US-China Tech Tensions

Patent Litigation



In a  turn of events within the semiconductor industry, Chinese flash memory manufacturer Yangtze Memory Technologies Co (YMTC) has instigated a legal battle against the U.S. chip giant Micron Technology, alleging the infringement of eight patents. The lawsuit, filed recently in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, contends that Micron and its subsidiary have been leveraging YMTC's patented technology to gain market traction without due compensation—a move that amplifies the escalating US-China tech tensions.

Micron, a prominent player in the production of DRAM and NAND flash memory chips, competes fiercely with global industry leaders like Samsung, SK Hynix, and Kioxia (Toshiba's unit). The legal action by YMTC surfaces amidst heightened restrictions imposed by the U.S. government on exporting chipmaking technology to China, citing national security concerns.

At the heart of YMTC's claims is the accusation of Micron's engagement in "freeriding" practices, allegedly impeding fair competition and stifling YMTC's advancement. This lawsuit unfolds against the backdrop of intensified U.S. sanctions affecting YMTC's procurement of specific American components, compelling the company to pivot its strategy and forge closer partnerships with domestic suppliers like Naura as a countermeasure against the restrictions.

Despite facing challenges such as being blacklisted by the U.S. in the past and undergoing a cybersecurity review by Beijing, YMTC has displayed resilience. The company has adapted by strengthening collaborations within the domestic semiconductor supply chain, aiming to reduce dependence on American technologies. Notably, YMTC touts its technological prowess by claiming to have produced the "world's most advanced" 3D NAND memory chip for consumer devices, positioning itself as a pivotal player in the global 3D NAND market.

Moreover, YMTC's trajectory is intrinsically linked to China's response to global NAND memory chip makers. In a bid to showcase innovation, the company unveiled its groundbreaking 232-layer 3D NAND chip last year, highlighting a steadfast commitment to technological advancement. The shifting market dynamics, prompted by U.S. trade restrictions, have spurred Chinese businesses, including YMTC, to fortify indigenous capabilities, thereby reducing reliance on American technology.

Financially buoyed by a substantial $7 billion capital infusion in March from state-backed investors, including the "Big Fund," YMTC demonstrates strategic support from the Chinese government. This injection aimed to bolster YMTC's autonomy in producing NAND memory chips, underscoring China's resolve to fortify its semiconductor industry despite external limitations.

Market projections indicate a decline in YMTC's global share in the NAND sector to 5.7% this year from 6% in 2022, mirroring similar challenges faced by Micron, whose share is forecasted to decrease to 10.9% from 11.3%. These projections reflect the multifaceted challenges both companies confront amid geopolitical tensions and evolving market landscapes.

This legal battle underscores the intricate interplay between innovation, intellectual property rights, and geopolitical tensions, marking a pivotal moment in the high-stakes semiconductor landscape dominated by US-China relations.