Small firm takes on Apple, Google over voice patent

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Apple, Google, Microsoft and all major smartphone vendors were slapped with a lawsuit Wednesday by Potter Voice Technologies, an obscure Colorado company that claims they are infringing its patent on natural-language voice control of a computer.

Potter sued the 15 vendors and their affiliated companies in the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado. The suit revolves around Apple’s Siri app and Google Voice Commands, as well as a technology called Windows Speech Commands. It cites a single U.S. patent, number 5,729,659, which was issued to Jerry L. Potter in 1998.

Other companies named in the suit include Nokia, Research In Motion, Samsung Electronics, Sony, LG Electronics, Motorola Mobility, ZTE, Huawei Technologies, Kyocera, Sharp and Pantech.

Patent litigation among mobile device makers has become fast and furious in recent years as the lucrative mobile market has grown quickly. Potter’s suit is notable for its broad range of targets and the fact that it comes from a largely unknown company. Potter Voice lists an address in Brighton, Colorado, a suburb of Denver.

Potter is seeking damages to be determined at trial, “but in no event less than a reasonable royalty” against all the companies named, according to the complaint filed Wednesday. It is also seeking injunctions against the companies and attorney’s fees.

But the company is taking special aim at Apple, Microsoft and Sony, which it claims must have known about the patent and therefore are guilty of willful infringement. Potter says the patent was cited in a 2004 case involving SRI International, which developed Siri. Apple acquired Siri from SRI, a Silicon Valley research and development company. Willful infringement allows for increased damages.

Siri is designed to understand and respond to questions and requests, such as queries about facts or nearby businesses, expressed in the user’s own words. It was integrated into Apple’s iPhone 4S, introduced last October, but a version of it previously had been available as a third-party app for other iPhones. It is offered only on the 4S, the latest model of the iPhone, and Apple has used it as a major selling point for the handset.

Potter’s patent, entitled “Method and apparatus for controlling a digital computer using oral input,” lays out a system for interpreting commands expressed in normal spoken language. The idea behind it was to cut out the sometimes lengthy training that’s needed for traditional voice-control systems that require specific commands. This could make it easier for new and casual users to take advantage of voice control, according to the introduction to the patent.

After spoken words are received by a microphone and interpreted by voice recognition, those words are used to search the contents of a tabular data structure organized in rows and columns, the patent says.

Because the patent application was filed in 1995, Potter probably couldn’t use it to collect royalties beyond 2015, according to Colleen Chien, an assistant professor of law at Santa Clara University in Santa Clara, California. However, the company could still win damages for past infringement, she added. The age of the patent could also work in its favor, because it predates by many years the introduction of Siri.

The defendants in the case might attack Potter’s suit on the basis of the America Invents Act, an overhaul of the U.S. patent system signed into law last year. Among other things, the new law is designed to make it harder for plaintiffs to go after many different parties in the one suit for patent infringement, said Eric Goldman, an associate law professor at Santa Clara. However, suing several parties in the same action can end up benefitting either side, he said.

Google declined to comment until it had reviewed the complaint. Apple did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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