A Small Firm Takes on the Big Smartphone Makers over Voice Patents

In a rare speech case of David vs. Goliath, Potter Voice Technologies, an obscure company based in Brighton, Colo., has filed a federal patent infringement lawsuit against the 15 largest electronics manufacturers in the world for allegedly infringing on a 14-year-old patent that covers technology used in Apple's Siri and other electronic products that rely on voice commands to control computer functions.

The lawsuit, filed yesterday in a Denver federal court, names Apple, Sony, Microsoft, Google, HTC, Samsung, LG, Motorola, ZTE, Kyocera, Sharp, Huawei, Pantech, Research in Motion, and Nokia as defendants. It claims willful infringement of U.S. Patent No. 5,729,659, which was issued to Jerry Potter by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office on March 17, 1998.

The suit revolves around Apple's Siri, the voice app that it began shipping on iPhone 4S models late last year, Google Voice Commands, and Microsoft's Windows Speech Commands, and seeks damages, royalties, and other financial compensation and an injunction against the defendants.

Though the suit is directed at 15 defendants, it specifically targets Apple, Microsoft, and Sony, which Potter claims must have known about the patent, citing in a 2004 case involving SRI International, which developed Siri and was later acquired by Apple.

"Apple's Siri and Google's Google Voice Actions make cell phones and other electronic devices much more useful for customers, but those products and others would never have been possible if not for the technology embodied in Potter's patent," said Christopher Banys, an intellectual property attorney with the Lanier law firm in Palo Alto, Calif., which is representing Potter in the case. "The defendants have collected a fortune using Potter's technology, and we are asking the court for at least a reasonable royalty based on their unauthorized use."

Patent litigation among mobile device makers is nothing new as competition has heated up in the very lucrative mobile market in the past few years. What makes this suit interesting is the high-caliber names on the defendant's list and the fact that Potter is virtually unknown.

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