A coalition of tech giants has successfully convinced a US court to invalidate three patents covering tech at the heart of voice-controlled digital assistants like Siri, Cortana and Google Assistant. The fight, however, isn't over yet.
Google, Microsoft and Amazon are being sued by patent-holding biz IPA Technologies in a long-running dispute over six patents describing technology used by digital assistants. This month the trio won a significant victory when a Delaware federal court struck down half of the patents on the grounds that they never should have been issued in the first place.
The patents themselves have had an unusual journey. They were first registered by SRI International, a non-profit set up by Stanford University. SRI then set up a spinoff company called Siri, in an effort to get its speech-based tech into the market, and granted the new company a non-exclusive license to its patents. Apple then bought Siri – and permanent access to the patents - in 2010.
But Canadian intellectual property licensing company, IPA Technologies (a subsidiary of WiLAN), saw an opportunity and bought the patents from SRI in 2016. Within six months it embarked on a legal campaign to make sure it got its money's worth, by suing everyone it could for patent infringement.
A first set of lawsuits were lodged against Dell, HP, Toshiba, Acer and Asus in October 2016 – and quickly settled. IPA then sued Amazon, trying to get a stranglehold on the most successful digital assistant to date: Alexa. Amazon decided to fight.
In the meantime, IPA also sued Google (Assistant), Microsoft (Cortana) as well as HTC, Sony, Dish and a number of others. So the tech companies joined together to challenge the patents – and this month won. At least in part.
In this case, US patents 6,742,021, 6,523,061 and 6,757,718 have been found to be invalid because they "are directed to the abstract idea of 'retrieving electronic data in response to a spoken request and transmitting the retrieved data to a user' and do not contain an inventive concept."
Striking down the patents, the judge cited a 2014 Supreme Court decision in which four patents owned by the Alice Corporation were ruled ineligible from protection because they covered abstract ideas and translating them to work on a computer was not seen as a patentable concept.
New allegations, new patents
The judge had originally struck the patents down in April but that prompted IPA Technologies to file an amended complaint with new allegations. It pulled in another three patents it owns, claiming they are being infringed by Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant and Microsoft Cortana.
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Those three giants fired back that all of the now six patents are invalid, referencing the Alice Supreme Court decision. And the judge agreed – but only on the original three patents.
The patents are "drafted so broadly as to cover any method that can achieve navigating electronic databases by spoken natural input," he decided [PDF]. And IPA's new argument that its patents covered ways to improve on existing tech were dismissed as "boilerplate."
"Many of the new allegations simply quote, cite or otherwise incorporate language from the claims and specification," he snorted. Previously he had argued that the patents were "replete" with references to technology that already existed and introduced no new inventive concepts.
But he didn't rule the other three patents as invalid and in fact said that they provide a structure to improve current technology – meaning they are patentable. As such, Alexa, Assistant, and Cortana are not off the hook yet, and SRI's IP is still very much alive.
The cases will now continue with IPA in a weaker position and the market for digital assistants freed a little from have to pay patent licenses, but it is far from over. ®