The Patent, Used as a Sword
By Charles Duhigg and Steve Lohr, The New York Times
When Apple announced last year that all iPhones would come with a voice-activated assistant named Siri, capable of answering spoken questions, Michael Phillips’s heart sank.
For three decades, Mr. Phillips had focused on writing software to allow computers to understand human speech. In 2006, he had co-founded a voice recognition company, and eventually executives at Apple, Google and elsewhere proposed partnerships. Mr. Phillips’s technology was even integrated into Siri itself before the digital assistant was absorbed into the iPhone.
But in 2008, Mr. Phillips’s company, Vlingo, had been contacted by a much larger voice recognition firm called Nuance. “I have patents that can prevent you from practicing in this market,” Nuance’s chief executive, Paul Ricci, told Mr. Phillips, according to executives involved in that conversation.
When the first lawsuit went to trial last year, Mr. Phillips won. In the companies’ only courtroom face-off, a jury ruled that Mr. Phillips had not infringed on a broad voice recognition patent owned by Mr. Ricci’s company.
But it was too late. The suit had cost $3 million, and the financial damage was done. In December, Mr. Phillips agreed to sell his company to Mr. Ricci. “We were on the brink of changing the world before we got stuck in this legal muck,” Mr. Phillips said.
Mr. Phillips and Vlingo are among the thousands of executives and companies caught in a software patent system that federal judges, economists, policy makers and technology executives say is so flawed that it often stymies innovation.
Law school faculty at the University of California, Berkeley, have proposed a “Defensive Patent License” in which companies would contribute patents to a common pool that shielded participants from litigious aggressors. Companies would be allowed to participate as long as they did not become first-strike plaintiffs. The benefit is that “you don’t have to worry about your patent being weaponized” and used to attack competitors, said Jason M. Schultz, an assistant professor who helped design the license.