Apple is appearing in a Shanghai court today to face China’s Zhi Zhen Internet Technology, which says that Apple’s dulcet-toned voice interface violates its patent. Zhizhen started developing the Xiao i—or “small i”—robot, a “voice-activated personal assistant”, in 2003 and was granted a patent in 2006. Xiao is remarkably similar to Siri, down to the tones it uses on activation and the icon design—and it’s the latest in a very long list of intellectual property lawsuits filed by Chinese firms against Apple.
- Last year, a company called Proview sued Apple for using the term iPad, which it said violated its trademark. (Proview had an IPAD that looked a lot like the original iMac.) A US court dismissed the case, but Apple eventually had to settle with Proview for $60 million through a court in Guangdong.
- In 2008 a company called Cai Yaohua claimed that Apple’s iPod infringed its patents. Apple successfully invalidated the lawsuit.
- A detergent-maker called Jiangsu Snow Leopard Household Chemical sued Apple in June last year, claiming that Apple’s trade name for OS 10.6, Snow Leopard, infringed its trademark. Apple does not, however, use the Chinese characters 雪豹 to describe its system (nor does it make detergent). The suit is still pending.
- The National Cheng Kung University in Taiwan filed a patent-infringement suit over Siri soon after Zhi Zhen, which is also still pending.
The irony of Apple facing these suits in China—whose factories churn out copyright- and trademark-infringement products by the shedload, including lots of fake iPhones—is inescapable. But this may be more than a simple case of patent trolling.
Zhi Zhen is not yet seeking compensation though it doesn’t rule it out. All it wants, it says, is for its patent to be recognized and for Apple to stop pushing Siri in China. Zhi Zhen also told Shanghai Daily that its product is used by government, banks and for e-commerce services.
The hearing comes at an uncomfortable time for Apple. Beijing has over the past two weeks been engaged in a PR offensive against the company, with state-sponsored newspapers and television channels running campaigns on Apple’s purportedly shoddy customer service.
It is unlikely that the patent lawsuits and the publicity war are related. But having set a precedent with the Proview settlement and having run afoul of Beijing, Apple should probably ask Siri—or Xiao i robot—for some expert legal, PR, and diplomatic advice to weather the storm.
A full hearing is scheduled for July.
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