Apple sues new RISC-V startup Rivos in alleged IP theft and poaching

09-05-2022 |   |  By Robin Mitchell

A recent report has revealed that Apple has initiated legal proceedings against the new RISC-V startup Rivos for theft of IP. What exactly has Apple claimed, how does this lawsuit show that RISC-V is a serious technology, and does RISC-V present a threat to current CPU technologies?


What exactly has Apple claimed?


In a recent report published by MacRumors, Apple has launched legal proceedings against a startup RISC-V company, Rivos, for violating Apple IP. Additionally, Apple has also included two key employees of Rivos in their lawsuit, Bhasi Kaithamana and Wen Shih-Chieh.

According to Apple, Rivos have not only unfairly poached many employees from Apple, but some of those who moved across to Rivos supposedly downloaded sensitive files and intellectual property from Apple before making the transfer. Apple also accuses some employees of using Airdrop to receive these files and wiping key Apple devices to hide their traces. Apple has estimated that the two employees mentioned in the lawsuit have collectively downloaded over 300 gigabytes of data surrounding SoC technology, and this may have been used to give Rivos a kickstart in their operations.

In their lawsuit, Apple wants to place an injunction on ex-Apple employees to prevent more data from leaking to Rivos. It is also looking for compensation concerning the misuse of its intellectual property. However, recognising that Rivos could be a big player in the world of performance RISC-V processors, Apple stated in their lawsuit that they are willing to receive a reasonable royalty from all devices sold by Rivos.

So far, it appears that Rivos has not publicly responded to the lawsuit, and this is likely due to the fact that at the time of this article (05/05/2022), the lawsuit is only a few days old. As such, Rivos may already be in talks with Apple’s legal department to figure out what’s going on and whether they will meet in court or cease operations altogether.


How does this lawsuit show that RISC-V is a serious technology?


While RISC-V is an open-source CPU instruction set, its implementation is most certainly not open-source. In fact, one of the most significant advantages of RISC-V not having open-source implementations is that it gives companies a reason to invest and compete in RISC-V processor design while ensuring that all RISC-V processors can run RISC-V code.

While Apple have made large amounts of investment in their custom ARM core design (note that Apple only licenses the instruction set for ARM but designs the core themselves), large amounts of effort have also gone into the rest of the SoC which includes memory management, bus arbitration, and GPU. Considering that Rivos are focusing on the use of RISC-V technology, it would go without saying that the true value in Apple SoC designs to Rivos is in the supporting circuitry.

If Rivos does/did plan to use Apple proprietary technology for their future RISC-V designs, then most of the hard work has already been done, and the only task left is to design a custom RISC-V core.

However, Apple has also been known to be actively working in the field of RISC-V technology as they have previously placed ads for engineers with RISC-V experience. Considering that Apple is already planning to remove their dependence on Qualcomm with a custom modem, it would make sense that Apple also wants to drop ARM who take licences and royalties.

Therefore, the intellectual designs that may or may not have been stolen from Apple could very well include RISC-V designs not yet published or completed. If Rivos were to publish a design before Apple, they could claim that Apple either copied them or the similarities in design are purely coincidental.


Does this legal action suggest that RISC-V is a serious CPU contender?


Apple launching legal proceedings shows that they feel threatened by Rivos, and one would only be threatened if there was money to be made, meaning that Apple believes that RISC-V is a technology that will succeed. This is especially true when considering that Apple stated in their legal action against Rivos that they would be happy with a royalty plan.

X86 has been around for almost 40 years, and it shows no sign of going anywhere, thanks to its high performance. ARM has demonstrated that RISC CPU architectures can be extremely efficient in mobile and desktop applications, while the release of the Apple M1 shows how the combination of RISC, multiple cores, and hardware accelerators can create powerful machines with extremely good power performances.

But, RISC-V is the first open-source CPU architecture that has exploded in popularity. The standardisation of the instruction set allows multiple companies to develop their own processors while ensuring code compatibility. The lack of licensing and the freedom to design custom hardware could see ARM seriously threatened by RISC-V, and it is very likely that unless ARM makes changes to its business, then RISC-V could catch ARM by surprise.


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By Robin Mitchell

Robin Mitchell is an electronic engineer who has been involved in electronics since the age of 13. After completing a BEng at the University of Warwick, Robin moved into the field of online content creation developing articles, news pieces, and projects aimed at professionals and makers alike. Currently, Robin runs a small electronics business, MitchElectronics, which produces educational kits and resources.

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