Shanghai company sues Apple over Siri patent

Suit is the latest in a series of Apple legal challenges in China

Apple has become the target of another lawsuit in China, this time because of its Siri technology, with a Shanghai-based company alleging that Apple has infringed on a patent involving its own personal assistant software.

The company, Shanghai Zhi Zhen Internet Technology, is the developer of software called "Xiao i Robot" that communicates through voice, and can answer users' questions while also holding simple conversations. In 2004, the company applied for a patent in China covering the technology, and was later granted it in 2006.

"We have a 100 million users in China, and many companies are using our product," said the company head Yuan Hui, in an interview on Friday. The software is available for Android, iOS, Windows Live Messenger, and is used by products from China Telecom, China Mobile, as well as major banks in the country.

Apple's Siri, which is also a personal assistant software, became available in China starting early this year, when the iPhone 4S was officially launched in the country. Last month, Apple said it had incorporated Chinese Mandarin and Cantonese languages into Siri.

In May, Zhi Zhen Internet Technology contacted Apple about the alleged patent infringement. A month later, the company filed a lawsuit against Apple in a Shanghai court, which has accepted the case, Yuan said. "Our only demand is that Apple stop infringing on our patent," he said.

Apple did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The patent lawsuit is one more legal battle Apple has to deal with in China. Earlier this week, a Chinese court announced Apple had to pay $60 million to buy ownership of the "iPad trademark" in China from a local company.

Another Chinese company, called Jiangsu Snow Leopard Household Chemical, has also said it is suing Apple for trademark infringement because a version of the Mac OS X also uses the Snow Leopard name in Chinese.

"Apple is a major company, and so it will be hard for it to avoid these legal disputes. If you are a big company you will attract controversy," said Zhao Zhanling, an expert on China's IT laws.

Some of these legal battles involve legitimate grievances, according to Zhao, such as in the case of a group of Chinese authors suing Apple for allegedly hosting pirated e-books on its App Store.

But others, including the trademark infringement case being brought by Jiangsu Snow Leopard Household Chemical, appear to be more about generating promotion, he said. "There is a low likelihood that Jiangsu Snow Leopard will win the case," he said. "They are just sensationalizing themselves, and perhaps want to try to make some money from trademark licensing from Apple."

Zhao declined to comment on Zhi Zhen Internet Technology's lawsuit against Apple because he was not familiar with the patent at the center of the dispute. Zhi Zhen Internet Technology, however, is dismissing any criticism that the company is suing Apple at an opportune time to try and gain something from the U.S. tech giant.

"People feel that China has no innovation, that companies here just copy. But this is a misunderstanding," Yuan said. "We are a leader in our field, and we have created our own innovation."

Yuan declined to comment on whether his company would sue other developers of similar personal assistant technology in China.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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