Chip startup Rivos is countersuing Apple Inc., claiming the tech giant forces employees to sign restrictive agreements that prevent them from working elsewhere and stifle up-and-coming companies that hire its staff.
The countersuit filed Friday by Rivos and six ex-Apple employees in a San Jose federal court escalates an acrimonious trade secret feud that began when Apple last year sued Rivos and former employees who joined the startup. Rivos is pushing back by asking the court to rule that Apple’s “overbroad” non-disclosure and non-solicit agreements are unenforceable.
“Afraid of any threat of legitimate competition in the marketplace, and hoping to frighten and send a message to any employees who might dare to leave Apple to work somewhere else, Apple has resorted to trying to thwart emerging startups through anticompetitive measures, including illegally restricting employee mobility,” Rivos said in its countersuit.
An Apple spokesman declined to comment.
Apple accused the startup and the employees in a lawsuit of luring away its engineers and stealing proprietary information used to develop its homegrown chip designs. The dispute revolves around “system-on-chip” technology that shrinks multiple computer elements into a small chip, which Apple says it has invested billions of dollars in to make its devices more powerful.
Rivos claims Apple’s Intellectual Property Agreement that Apple employees sign as condition of employment are “expansive as to cover anything ‘learned’ during the course of employment, regardless whether it is a trade secret.” The agreement includes, a non-solicitation provision, “which is designed to, and Apple uses to, chill employee mobility and competition,” Rivos said in its countersuit.
Read more: Apple Advances Chip Secrets Suit Against Ex-Employees
Moreover, Apple allows employees to store work documents in their iCloud and iMessage accounts but doesn’t inspect their data and messages when they leave, according to Rivos’ countersuit.
Apple had sued Gerard Williams III, who left his job as lead chip architect at Apple and co-founded a chip startup Nuvia Inc. for trade secrets theft in a California state court in 2019. Williams had also lashed back in a court filing saying Apple’s lawsuit is designed to “suffocate the creation of new technologies and solutions by a new business, and to diminish the freedom of entrepreneurs to seek out more fulfilling work.”
Apple asked the Santa Clara County Superior court to dismiss the lawsuit against Williams in April.
Apple deployed the same “playbook” used against Nuvia and Williams to target Rivos, the startup claims.
In August, US District Judge Edward Davila threw out Apple’s trade secret claims against Rivos, but gave the iPhone maker a chance to file a revised complaint.
The case is Apple Inc. v. Rivos Inc., 5: 22-cv-2637, U.S. District Court, Northern District of California (San Jose).