Few inventions have come to symbolise the modern age like the computer chip; something that most of us have come to rely in numerous ways without fully understanding its inner workings. Computer chips consist of microscopic patterns etched onto a circuit which is then placed between two or more semiconducting layers. Microchip designs and the manner in which they operate were originally protected by patents, although the microscopic patterns do not constitute an inventive step and so patent protection is no longer possible.
Many considered the circuit etchings to constitute an artistic work, thereby giving rise to copyright protection, although section 51(1) of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 defeated this view. Accordingly, semiconductor topographies are not protected as unregistered design rights in England and Wales, with protection attaching itself specifically to the arrangement, or topography, of the micro circuits.
European Council Directive 87/54/EEC of 16 December 1986 was introduced specifically to protect topographies of semiconductor products and to harmonise the laws relating to the same across Europe. The Directive recognised the scale of human, technical and financial investment required in the development process and the problem of the ease with which topographies can be copied at a fraction of the development cost.
Semiconductor topography protection grants an exclusive monopoly right for 10 years from the end of the year that the product first came to market. It allows the rights holder to authorise or refuse sale or import of a copied topography. The protection does not, however, apply where the topography has been reproduced for teaching, analysis or evaluation purposes.
The Directive obliges member states to legislate in order to afford protection to individuals or companies allowing them to commercially exploit the topographies they have created or those which they are authorised to exploit by the creator of the topography. States are, however, permitted to refuse protection where a registration application for the semiconductor product has not been filed within two years of it first coming to market.