Intel may have just avoided a costly legal battle – losing one 30 years ago

Anyone with eyes on the hardware industry will probably know by now that Intel is officially back in the GPU game, releasing its first laptop and desktop graphics cards in the new Arc Alchemist series after more than two decades. Arc GPUs are currently only available in China, with Intel planning to expand into the global market in the near future.

The new Arc M series cards have been floating in laptops in China for weeks, while the very first desktop GPU has just been launched in partnership with Chinese manufacturer Gunnir (although it is sold at exorbitant prices right now). That board is the Intel Arc A380, a name that might sound a bit familiar to anyone with more than a passing interest in aviation.

The A380 is the world’s largest passenger aircraft, developed by Airbus to challenge the iconic Boeing 747 and produced from 2007 to 2021. A two-story “airliner” with a standard capacity of over 500 passengers, the A380 is a common sight at airports these days. , especially for long-haul flights to and from the Asia-Pacific region. If you’ve flown with Emirates or Quantas before, chances are you’ve sat on an A380.

Here’s the important bit: “A380” is a registered trademark owned by Airbus. As a helpful reader pointed out to us, this could potentially put Intel in hot water over the release of new GPUs using the A380 name. Trademark law is murky and complicated at the best of times, and some companies will aggressively pursue possible infringements to protect their brands, which could cause problems for Intel.

Airbus A380 airliner in flight.

(Image credit: Airbus)

Does Airbus have a lawsuit?

Naturally, I spoke to Intel about it. After a few days of deliberation with his legal team, he concluded that there was no danger of prosecution and therefore declined to make an official statement on the matter. To understand why Intel thinks it’s safe, we’ll need a brief introduction to trademark law.

I’ll try to be as brief and not boring as possible, because let’s be honest: trademark law isn’t exactly the most exciting subject. The key to which this boils down is “likelihood of confusion” – typically, for a trademark lawsuit to succeed, a judge must decide that there is a non-zero chance that a consumer could be confused between two non-generic products based on name.

Now, in this case, it would appear that Intel is already in the clear; no one in their right mind would confuse a graphics card with a gigantic airplane, after all. Also, Airbus actually uses Intel processor hardware in its planes, so ticking Intel seems like a bad idea.

But the list of Airbus brands Is include references to A380-branded marketing materials, indicating that Airbus may have reason to launch a legal offensive. Intel is obviously confident; I imagine his legal team wouldn’t have greenlit the name if they were concerned, because the A380 isn’t exactly a secret. Partnering with Gunnir for an initial China-exclusive launch is also a somewhat smart move, as Chinese courts are notorious for refusing to uphold foreign trademark lawsuits.

A key point here is that Intel has not attempted to trademark an A380 or any other Arc GPU designation, due to an entirely different legal precedent at play here that could work in Intel’s favor – and to dig deeper this, we have to go all the way back to a hotel in Sunnyvale, California in 1990.

What happened in Sunnyvale?

Even in the 80s, Intel and AMD were locked in a constant battle for processor supremacy. As the decade drew to a close, it looked like Intel was winning; for years AMD had been able to produce Intel-designed processors through a “second source” arrangement prompted by high demand for microprocessors in new computers. But Intel had decided to end that deal, becoming the sole source of its coveted 80386 chip.

AMD was making a lot of money, but losing the ability to sell the 80386 CPU was a big blow. Intel owned the trademark on the 80386 (or simply “386”), and this trademark was closely guarded; Team Blue was wary of copycats, and that was fine. He defended the brand and associated technology zealously, suing AMD to stop him from continuing to use the microarchitecture that powered the 386.

AMD had already started attempting to reverse engineer its own version of the 386 chip, but before it could release it, a quirk of fate saw Intel start a new legal battle against its former trading partner.

In late 1990, an AMD marketing executive from Texas named Mike Webb traveled to Sunnyvale, where AMD’s headquarters were located. He stayed at the Hilton, unaware that an Intel engineer was staying at the same hotel – and it turned out he shared the name Mike Webb. When an express package was delivered to the hotel for AMD’s Mike Webb after the two men left, the hotel unknowingly passed it on to the wrong Mr. Webb.

This package contained marketing materials for a proposed “AM386” processor. Intel’s Mike Webb handed the contents over to Intel’s legal team, who glanced at the AM386 trademark, sealed the package without reading another word, and immediately filed a lawsuit against AMD for having infringed the “386” mark.

Image of Gunnir's new Arc A380 Photon GPU

(Image credit: Gunnir, Intel)

A change of fate for AMD

Unfortunately for Intel, the judge ruled in favor of AMD in March 1991, determining that the “386” mark was generic rather than a defensible product identifier. This set an awkward precedent for Intel; the manufacturer was unable to obtain trademarks for the planned 486 and 586 chips, and AMD then launched the AM386 and establish itself as a serious competitor to Team Blue in the CPU market.

The impact this has had can be seen in the names of every consumer processor on the market today: especially that they actually have names, rather than just numbers. Intel’s next step was to establish the Pentium brand, while the numbers became just a sub-chip identifier. In fact, Intel was keen to reiterate the distinction between a product name and what it called an “alphanumeric product designation” when we contacted the company about this story.

This legal precedent also extends to GPUs, hence why “A380” is not an Intel trademark and never will be; it’s just a designation, while “Intel Arc” is the actual trademark. Assuming the 1991 decision is upheld, Airbus has no hope of a lawsuit here, since Intel has all but lost this battle already.

In technology, it’s basically impossible to trademark a short string of letters and numbers, so it stands to reason that Intel can safely use whatever designation it wants without fear of legal retaliation. And it’s the story of how, in a bizarre sequence of events, Intel may have managed to avoid a lawsuit by losing a different meaning in 1991.

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