Enlarge / The first Amazon Echo speaker.

Luke MacGregor/Bloomberg via Getty Images

A federal court in Delaware has ordered Amazon to pay $46.7 million for infringing four patents owned by VB Assets with Amazon’s Echo smart speakers and Alexa virtual assistant. A lawsuit filed by Nuance Communications-owned VB Assets, formerly known as VoiceBox Technologies, claimed to have already invented a circular speaker capable of connecting to the web and responding to voice prompts with a female, robotic voice.

Wednesday’s ruling (PDF), first reported by Reuters, orders Amazon to pay the sum in ongoing royalties rather than a lump sum. The decision follows a jury verdict (PDF) that Amazon infringed four of VoiceBox’s patents. The patents relate to the provision of networked coordinated conversational services, a conversational voice user interface, and the link between advertisements and natural language processing of voice inputs. VB Assets initially accused Amazon of infringing six of its patents.

Amazon still has time to appeal the judgment, and VoiceBox has time to request reimbursement for associated costs.

Patent Infringement Claims

VoiceBox claimed to have developed a prototype of something similar to Echo and Alexa long before Amazon’s product announcement. In fact, his lawsuit, filed in 2019 (PDF), included a link to a YouTube video appearing to be a report on VoiceBox’s “Cybermind” prototype. The video apparently shows a report from Seattle’s King 5 News from 2006, showing someone asking a speaker questions such as “Computer, what is the NBA schedule?” » and “Computer, what are the forecasts for Sunday?” as well as prompts, such as “Computer, find me a good chocolate cheesecake recipe.” A speaker’s voice responds to questions or prompts, apparently by pulling the answers from the Internet or connected computer.

You can check out the cited video and the prototype in action below:


Seattle’s King 5 News in 2006.

The lawsuit claimed that VoiceBox’s founders began working on integrating natural language understanding into computer applications in 2001. Based in Bellevue, Washington, VoiceBox created voice-activated applications for TomTom and other brands and GPS cars, Reuters noted.

VoiceBox’s lawsuit claimed that VoiceBox demonstrated a voice assistant for Lexus cars called Alexus “that showed the power of its conversational voice technology.” The lawsuit claimed that “the ‘Alexus’ concept was introduced to the public more than six months before Amazon announced ‘Alexa.’ »

Like other patent cases against tech giants, the lawsuit also claimed that Amazon invited VoiceBox employees to meetings about VoiceBox’s technologies, only to end up ripping off the company’s ideas and poaching the employees. . VoiceBox’s lawsuit claimed that VoiceBox first met with Amazon in 2011 “to explore a potential business relationship in which VoiceBox Technologies would provide core (natural language understanding) services to Amazon.” Amazon announced Amazon Echo and Alexa in 2014. VoiceBox also claimed to have held meetings about its patents with Amazon in 2017.

Amazon did not respond to Ars Technica’s request for comment.

Another obstacle for Alexa

The ruling this week contrasts with a 2021 ruling from a Delaware federal court finding that Alexa does not infringe IPA Technologies Inc.’s patents, as Reuters reported. While not as big a ruling as we’ve seen in other recent patent cases and a drop in the ocean in terms of Amazon’s overall revenue, the ruling against Amazon arrives at an awkward moment of uncertainty and flux for its voice assistant.

In late 2022, Business Insider reported that Alexa was on track to lose $10 billion to Amazon that year. Amazon has never confirmed this figure, but there’s no denying that voice assistant sellers have been desperately thinking of ways to try to increase the amount of revenue these technologies generate. David Limp, Amazon’s longtime head of devices, is also leaving the company this year.

Hoping to make a difference, Amazon in September revealed its Alexa generative AI ambitions and hopes the voice assistant will eventually become so advanced and useful that customers will be willing to pay a subscription fee for use its most impressive features. However, Amazon is years away from making this idea viable.

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