Siri Litigation Still Alive in Shanghai, But for How Long?

March 28, 2013

I dimly recall talking about this case last year, I believe shortly after the iPad dispute was resolved. I’m too exhausted to poke around in the China Hearsay file room to find my previous post, but I assume I said something like “It’s too early to tell what’s going to happen, and we would need a formal patent analysis before any conclusions could be made.”

Guess what? The Shanghai court convened an evidentiary hearing yesterday and . . . I still have very little to say because we don’t yet have a patent analysis to talk about.

But if you can’t wait for substantive news coverage, there’s always Xinhua:

A Chinese company met Apple Inc in court on Wednesday, accusing the US-based tech giant of intellectual property right infringement regarding software used in its popular Siri software.

Shanghai Zhizhen Network Technology Co, the developer of voice-recognition technology Xiao i Robot, is alleging that Siri infringes on its patent, especially relating to “a type of instant messaging chat robot system.”

You might be thinking “Hey, that sounds like Siri.” Yeah, but any description like that is totally useless. It all comes down to the specific patent claims which, I’ll say again, none of us have read. So don’t get excited just yet.

Some of the case/patent history:

According to evidence presented by Zhizhen, it filed for a patent for the Xiao i Robot in 2004, while Apple’s Siri, which made its debut with the release of the iPhone 4S in 2011, was first developed in 2007 by Siri Inc, a start-up company acquired by Apple in 2010.

Would have been nice to know when the international Siri patents were filed, but it sounds like after the PRC one(s) anyway.

In April 2012, Zhizhen had sent letters to Apple Computer Trading (Shanghai) Co and Apple Inc, seeking to resolve the dispute through negotiation, but received no reply. The Chinese company filed a lawsuit on June 21, 2012, demanding that Apple stop the manufacture, sale and use of products with Siri technology in China.

Apple didn’t reply? If true, that might suggest that they don’t see this is as much of a threat. But you never know, and I wonder whether that statement is even true. Note that Xinhua does not have a statement from Apple on that question. They do have the following:

Apple, however, said Siri has an international patent and their products installed with Siri software are not related to the Xiao i Robot technology, so it did not violate the patent.

Well, having an international patent doesn’t really matter if we’re talking about a China infringement case. And if the China patent was filed three years before Siri filed internationally, then it’s even less relevant.

Apple also said at Wednesday’s hearing that a detailed technical appraisal and analysis of Siri and Xiao i Robot should be presented as evidence to determine whether Siri has violated Zhizhen’s intellectual property rights. The company held that Zhizhen has failed to provide such information.

So let me get this straight, Xinhua. Apple is saying two things. First: “We didn’t violate their patent.” Second: “And by the way, there is no technical information that could tell us whether we violated their patent.” I don’t know about you, but that’s wacky, assuming Xinhua got this right. I suspect it’s more like “We did our own patent analysis, and we think we’re OK. So how come the other side hasn’t come up with their own report?”

Li Yi, secretary-general of the China Mobile Internet Industry Alliance, reasoned that Apple would be unlikely to stop selling its products in China because the market is so important to the US electronics giant.

He also speculated that after a long court process, the two parties would likely reach a financial settlement out of court.

Last year, Apple paid 60 million US dollars to Proview Technology (Shenzhen) to end a protracted legal dispute over the iPad trademark in China.

So is Apple likely to settle with these guys in light of Proview? I think that’s a silly question. Two totally unrelated cases. Also remember, in that case, we were dealing with an identical trademark, and Proview was the legal owner.

In this case, we have no idea who has the legal upper hand. So why would Apple pay these guys off?