Richard Lloyd

WiLAN has stepped up its campaign against the growing personal digital assistant market filing six lawsuits before and after Christmas against a series of big tech companies including Amazon and HTC over patents that underpin Siri, the popular electronic assistant on Apple devices. The most recent case was filed on Tuesday against ZTE in district court in Delaware, bringing the total number of suits that the NPE’s subsidiary IPA Technologies has filed in this campaign to 11.

WiLAN acquired the patents in question in two tranches, including a package of nine grants in May 2016, from SRI International, a non-profit research institute which spun out of Stanford University more than 40 years ago. SRI began developing the technology for a voice-controlled electronic assistant following a grant from the US Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA), eventually setting up Siri Inc which was spun out as an independent entity in 2007 and was then bought by Apple in 2010.

At the time of the spinout Siri received a non-exclusive licence to the relevant patent portfolio from SRI. So while Apple has continued to develop Siri-related technology it does not own the original patents. According to WiLAN’s court filings, “SRI’s work on personal digital assistants was a key area of development in one of the world’s largest artificial intelligence projects”.  

The Canadian company launched its campaign in October last year with suits against Acer, ASUS, Dell, HP and Toshiba all of which settled within weeks. Shortly before Christmas it filed a case over the infringement of three patents against Amazon whose personal digital assistant Alexa has become one of the leaders in the sector. The online retail giant’s Echo has been one of the most successful smart speakers with Amazon selling more than five million over the last two years (it costs around $180).

That would suggest that WiLAN, should it win its suit, is in line for a large licensing payout. The NPE has a reputation for pushing for a settlement over pursuing lengthy litigation in the hopes of a blockbuster payout, but with such high stakes over one of its flagship products, Amazon may opt for a drawn out court battle.

The proliferation of devices like Amazon’s Echo, driven by sophisticated artificial intelligence technology, opens up another possible licensing revenue stream for patent owners which looks set to grow with the advent of the Internet of Things. As NPEs look to add to their patent portfolios and search for potential new licensees, WiLAN’s latest campaign could be a sign of things to come.