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In his patent application no. US3138743A, Jack Kilby, the Nobel prize winner for inventing the integrated circuit (IC), described the device as “a body of semiconductor material … wherein all the components of the electronic circuit are completely integrated.” The invention of IC revolutionized the computing world in unprecedented ways that ushered in a new age of sophisticated machine designs and components with multi-fold processing speeds. In the 1960s, NASA’s Apollo Program was the largest single consumer of integrated circuits, leading to watershed astronomical feats.

Fig. Jack Kilby’s first working integrated circuit (IC) of 1958

In general, a semiconductor layout design means a layout of transistors and other circuitry elements and includes lead wires connecting such elements and expressed in any manner in semiconductor integrated circuits. Today almost every electronic device (like computers, cell phones, cars, televisions, digital watches) use ICs due to their small size, high reliability and efficiency. Without ICs, electronic gadgets would be much slower and bulkier. In 2020, the global integrated circuit market size was estimated at around USD 437.71 billion. Moreover, the market is projected to grow from USD 489.31 billion in 2021 to USD 1,136.98 billion in 2028 at a CAGR of 12.8% during the 2021-2028 period.

With the rapid technological advancements, developing innovative layout designs of integrated circuits is essential for the production of ever-smaller digital devices with increased functions. While the creation of a new layout-design is usually the result of an enormous investment, both in financial terms and in terms of the time required from highly qualified experts, the copying of such a layout-design may cost only a fraction of the original investment. In order to prevent unauthorized copying of layout designs and to provide incentives for investing in this field, the layout design (topography) of integrated circuits is protected under a sui generis intellectual property system. In India, original layout-designs of semiconductor Integrated Circuits (ICs) are protected under the provisions of the Semiconductor Integrated Circuits Layout- Design Act (SICLDA) 2000. The Act is intended to fulfill India’s obligations with respect to the TRIPS agreement (Art.35 to 38) regarding the protection of semiconductor integrated circuits layout- designs.

Important Definitions under SICLDA

  • Section 2 (r) defines semiconductor integrated circuit as a product having transistors or other circuitry elements, which are inseparably formed on a semiconductor material or an insulating material or inside the semiconductor material and designed to perform an electronic circuitry function;
  • Section 2 (h) defines layout-design as a layout of transistors, and other circuitry elements and includes lead wires connecting such elements and expressed in any manner in a semiconductor integrated circuit;
  • Section 2 (h) defines commercial exploitation as to sell, lease, offer or exhibit for sale or otherwise distribute such semiconductor integrated circuits for any commercial purpose.

The Register, the Registry and the Registrar under SICLDA

Section 3 provides for the appointment of the Registrar for Semiconductor Integrated Circuits Layout-Design by the central government by notification in the Official Gazette. Moreover, Section 5 provides for the establishment of the Registry having its seal of authorization. Furthermore, a record containing all registered layout-designs with the names, addresses and descriptions of the proprietor and such other matters related to the registered layout-designs is contained in the Register kept at the head office of the Registry.

The Semiconductor Integrated Circuits Layout Design Registry (SICLDR) is visionized for the registration and promotion of Semiconductor Integrated Circuits Layout-Design in India. It acts as a catalyst for creating awareness about this sui generis system of IP protection.

Protection of Integrated Circuit Layout Design under the SICLDA

Any Integrated Circuit Layout Design that is –

  • Original;
  • Distinctive;
  • Capable of distinguishing from any other layout design; and
  • Have not been commercially exploited anywhere in India or in a convention country

can be registered under the Act as Integrated Circuit Layout Design for a period of 10 years counted from the date of filing the application for registration or from the date of first commercial exploitation anywhere in India or in any convention country or country specified by Government of India whichever is earlier.

Nature of the applicant and rights of the registered proprietor

The application for the protection of layout design can be made by the person who claims to be the creator of the layout design being an Indian national or national of country outside India which accords to citizens of India similar and has principal place of business in India or if he does not carry out business in India, has place of service in India can apply for registration.

Moreover, a legal representative of that person and a person registered in the prescribed manner as a layout design agent or a person in the sole and regular employment of the principal, in writing to the registrar in the prescribed manner can also apply for registration. The application can be filed either alone or jointly. The application has to be filed within the territorial limits that is a principal place of business in India of the applicant.

Section 17 of SICLDA provides that the registration of the layout design gives to the registered proprietor of the layout design the exclusive right to the use of the layout design and to obtain relief in respect of infringement. Moreover, this right shall be available to the registered proprietor of that layout design irrespective of the fact as to whether the layout design is incorporated in an article or not.

Further, the act of reproducing, selling, importing and distributing integrated circuit layout design for commercial purposes would constitute an infringement. In case if such an act is performed for the purposes of scientific evaluation, analysis, research or teaching, it shall not constitute an act of infringement. Any person who commits infringement shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term, which may extend to 3 years, or with fine which shall not be less than fifty thousand rupees but which may extend to ten lakh rupees, or with both.

Procedure for registration

  • Step 1 – Filing of application by the creator of the layout-design at the SICLD Registry. Once a company or an individual launches a new product with some unique feature, he/ she/ they can submit an application with the drawing/ mask and layout of the circuit for registration.
  • Step 2 – Acceptance of the application by the Registrar. The Registrar may accept, refuse the application or accept it with some modifications.
  • Step 3 – Publication of the accepted applications within 14 days of acceptance in the official journal.
  • Step 4 – Filing an opposition for the published application can be done within 3 months from the date of publication by any interested person. The counter-statement to the notice of opposition, if any, is to be filed within 2 months from the date of receipt of copy of notice of opposition from the Registrar. A copy of the counter statement is provided to the opposing party. The Registrar may offer a hearing with the parties.
  • Step 5 – Based on the opposition and the hearing (if any), the Registrar will decide on the originality of the layout-design and grant or reject the application for registration.
  • Step 6 – In case the Registrar rejects or accepts the application, the aggrieved party (either the applicant or the opponent) can appeal to Appellate Board or in its absence Civil Court for relief on any ruling of the Registrar.

Although the SICLDA offers substantial benefits for registering the Integrated Circuit Layout Design, only 2 registration certificates have been issued till now. This indicates a gigantic gap to be filled in spreading IP awareness and educating the creators and stakeholders from the semiconductor industry.