Integrated circuits are commonly called ICs, chips or microchips. These are tiny electrical circuits that power such products as cell phones, computers and almost any electronic device. Microscopic artwork in the form of designs and words that are printed onto a chip when it is being manufactured is known as chip art. This type of art is also called chip graffiti, silicon graffiti, silicon art and silicon doodling. Designers have often added chip art to circuits to mark them as their own, much in the same way artists sign their paintings and drawings.
One of the main reasons designers started using chip art was to be able to detect if another designer or manufacturer copied their product. Many IC companies used similar chip masks or templates for their circuits before 1984. If someone's chip art showed up on another company's microchips, however, it was a clear sign that they had completely stolen the whole design. The U.S. passed a revision to its copyright laws in 1984 making chip designs automatically copyrighted, so each company had to create its own unique chip frameworks.
Chip art is no longer necessary for copyright protection, but some designers still include it. Despite this, some companies have regulations that forbid art from being added to ICs. The worry is that the designs will somehow interfere with the operation of the chips. Though many IC corporations don't want these signatures on their circuits, others prize chip art for its creativity and uniqueness. The Smithsonian National Museum of American History, for example, has gathered a number of photographs of chip art and continues to collect examples for their silicon art display.
Chip art is printed onto the chips using photolithography, which uses light to etch patterns. Each IC may be put through the process of etching over a dozen times, so adding a symbol or word to the chip doesn't generally take a separate process or add to the cost. The images appear as simple line art, though some designs can be complex. The art can range from a word or phrase to popular cartoon characters, animals, symbols and company logos.
A microscope is necessary to view and photograph the designs. Early artwork, done when chips were much larger than they are today, was often no more than 50 micrometers high. That means the entire doodle might be only 0.002 inches (0.0058 mm) tall, which is a fraction of the width of a human hair. Today's technology allows the circuits and the chip artwork to be even smaller.