Arm sues Qualcomm for custom Nuvia CPU cores

Updated Arm is suing Qualcomm, one of its major customers, over the latter’s custom Nuvia processor cores.

British chip designer owned by Softbank sued [PDF] against Qualcomm today in a U.S. federal district court in Delaware.

Arm has accused Qualcomm of violating its licenses and wants the US giant to fulfill its obligations under those agreements, such as the destruction of its Nuvia processor designs, as well as compensation.

How did we come here?

In 2019, Nuvia emerged as a startup formed by semiconductor veterans, including Apple’s former chief iPhone chip architect, to design server microprocessors. To achieve this, Nuvia obtained a special architectural license from Arm, which allowed it to create its own Arm-compatible high-end processor cores. Nuvia has also licensed Arm’s standard off-the-shelf designs for integration into its chips.

Then in 2021, Qualcomm bought Nuvia for $1.4 billion. This was seen as a move by Qualcomm to bring in designs and expertise to create or customize Arm CPU cores to better compete with rivals. It has been speculated that Qualcomm could use Nuvia’s blueprints in server chips or adapt them to mobile devices.

According to Arm, however, the licenses it granted to Nuvia could not be transferred to and used by its new parent company Qualcomm without Arm’s permission. Arm says that Qualcomm has not, even after months of negotiations, obtained this consent, and that Qualcomm seemed to be focused on integrating Nuvia’s custom processor designs into its own line of chips without permission.

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This led to Arm terminating its licenses with Nuvia in early 2022, forcing Qualcomm to destroy and cease using Nuvia designs derived from those agreements. It is claimed that Qualcomm’s top lawyer wrote to Arm to confirm that he would abide by the termination.

However, says Arm, it appeared from subsequent press reports that Qualcomm may not have destroyed the basic designs and still intended to use the blueprints and technology it had acquired with Nuvia for its personal device and server chips, allegedly in breach of contract with Arm.

What’s interesting is that Qualcomm has an Armv9 architectural license with Arm, which it can use to design custom cores. Qualcomm also licenses off-the-shelf standard Arm cores and uses them in its widely used Snapdragon family of mobile processors. And at the same time, Arm is unhappy that Qualcomm intends to use Nuvia’s custom processor designs in PCs, phones, cars, servers, etc., which one would think Qualcomm has permission to do, given all the licenses it holds.

Check the Fine Print

But Arm says individual licenses are specific to individual licensees and their use cases, and cannot be automatically transferred. According to people familiar with the matter, Nuvia’s architectural license was tied to its server processors, whereas Qualcomm’s architectural license today applies to its chips for personal devices. Qualcomm should have negotiated and obtained permission to use Nuvia’s processor core designs in its chip line, and failed, it is alleged, and is now being sued.

“Qualcomm is effectively seeking to circumvent Arm’s licensing model,” the lawsuit states.

“Qualcomm’s improper acquisition of relevant Nuvia technology in violation of Arm’s standard provisions threatens to damage Arm’s position in the Arm-based device ecosystem, damage Arm’s reputation as a owner of intellectual property and developer of technology whose licenses must be honored, and to embolden other companies to also harm Arm’s reasonable business expectations when issuing its licenses.”

In a statement, Arm said:

Qualcomm, which a few months ago was reportedly interested in buying a stake in Arm after Nvidia failed to acquire the UK company, was not ready to comment at press time. . ®

Updated to add

Qualcomm responded to Arm’s lawsuit with a statement from Ann Chaplin, its general counsel:

Arm sues Qualcomm for custom Nuvia CPU cores

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