By Laird Harrison
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Pat Hughes left the bar he owns in New York City, flew across the country and showed up at 4:45 a.m. Wednesday morning to stand in line.
He wasn't trying to buy tickets to the Super Bowl or a Lady Gaga concert or shop at a holiday sale. Rather he wanted to be sure of getting a seat in a stuffy courtroom where lawyers would spend hours expounding on the minutiae of semiconductor technology.
Such is the dedication of investors in Rambus Inc, which for a decade has been fighting to prove that titans of industry conspired to steal its patents, fix prices and drive it out of business. Closing arguments ended Wednesday in Rambus's lawsuit against Micron Technology Inc and Hynix Semiconductor Inc after more than three months of testimony.
Investors such as Hughes have descended on the California Superior Court in San Francisco to watch their side do battle -- and perhaps make a last-minute trade.
"It's the David vs. Goliath thing," said Hughes, 46. "And so many of us have lost so much of our investment."
Billions of dollars are at stake. Rambus is asking for $3.95 billion in damages, which by California law would be instantly tripled, as well as unspecified punitive damages. Such an award could dramatically change the fortune of a company worth $1.46 billion in market capitalization as of Wednesday.
The company's shares often gyrate in tandem with major court decisions. For example, in January 2007 Rambus shares gained 9 percent after a favorable ruling in a case involving Hynix.
And the shares dropped 18 percent in May this year when an appeals court ruled against Rambus in a case against Micron.
On Thursday, a half dozen of the Ramboids, as company followers call themselves, set up a vigil in the marble-floored corridor outside the courtroom, waiting for the jury to return.
Jim Rockwell of Orange, Connecticut, said he has followed the company's fortunes since investing in 1999. A former software company owner, Rockwell said he was impressed by Rambus' inventions, which he believes underlie much of the hardware now on the market. "Computer memory would be so much slower if it were not for what they did," he said.
Rockwell, who also attended previous trials in California, Virginia and Washington, D.C., spent a week lining up at 6 a.m. for one of the coveted 42 seats in the courtroom. By Wednesday morning, the line stretched nearly a block, and anyone who arrived after 7 a.m. was relegated to following the online postings of the early birds.
The group shared donuts in line and many went out for dinner to pore over the closing arguments.
Lawyers for both sides focused on the reasons and the timing of the decision by the dominant microprocessor company, Intel Corp, to abandon Rambus's memory product RDRAM in favor of SDRAM, which became the industry standard.
Rambus says South Korea's Hynix and Idaho-based Micron colluded to fix prices of memory chips used in personal computers and prevent its technology from becoming widely used. It claims it lost billions of dollars in business.
Micron and Hynix argue that Rambus's chip technology was plagued by technical problems and that the company blames competitors for its own failure.
Micron attorney William Price and Hynix attorney Kenneth Nissly displayed memos from Intel and other computer companies suggesting that Rambus's arrogance had alienated its business partners. "Based on their view of the product, Rambus, and the changing market, Intel had decided not to have anything to do with Rambus," said Price.
In rebuttal, Rambus attorney Bart H. Williams argued that Intel's decision to switch from RDRAM to SDRAM came about only because it was harder to get RDRAM. "It was all about price and availability," he said.
Much of Rambus income comes from patent licensing, and it has initiated litigation against a range of tech companies. Winning patent cases makes it easier for Rambus to negotiate additional licensing arrangements.
The case in Superior Court of the State of California, County of San Francisco is Rambus Inc. v. Micron Technology Inc. et al, 04-431105.
(Reporting by Laird Harrison; Editing by Phil Berlowitz)