Apple’s Siri Gets Bruised in a Chinese Patent Fight

Siri lost a battle in a Beijing courtroom this week related to its patent fight with Xiao i, a Chinese voice-recognition robot. But it remains to be seen which voice-assisted interface will get the last word.

In February, Apple sued the Patent Review Committee, a branch of China’s State Intellectual Property Office, which in 2006 granted a patent to Xiao i’s developer, Shanghai Zhizhen Network Technology. The committee upheld the patent last year after Apple tried to invalidate it.

That lawsuit was a sort of counteroffensive. Zhizhen had struck first, claiming in a 2012 lawsuit in Shanghai that Apple had infringed on its intellectual-property rights. Like Siri, Xiao i Robot is capable of recognizing spoken requests to track down stock prices, find restaurants, check weather forecasts, and the like. Unlike Siri, it can be used on smart TVs and Android phones in addition to iPhones or iPads.

There’s another distinction: Xiao i is older than Siri. It got its patent well before Siri was introduced and later acquired by Apple. In response to Zhizhen’s lawsuit, Apple argued that Xiao i’s patent was invalid and that the two applications achieved similar ends by different means. While waiting for a verdict in that case, Apple filed its own suit against the government agency that granted Xiao i’s patent, which is the case Apple lost this week. Apple executives have indicated the company will appeal the ruling.

The Cupertino (Calif.)-based tech giant wasn’t aware of Zhizhen’s patent and isn’t using its technology, says Tiffany Yang, an Apple spokeswoman in Beijing. Apple executives remain open to negotiating with Zhizhen, she says.

Zhizhen said in a statement that the Beijing ruling makes the company more confident it’ll win its infringement lawsuit, and some Chinese media seized on Tuesday’s verdict to hint that Apple may be doomed. But that’s not necessarily the case.

“Obviously, that the patent is valid doesn’t mean Apple infringed upon it,” Deng Yinghsan, a patent engineer in Shenzhen, said after the court decision. “The press is confusing the two.”

The Beijing ruling is hardly surprising, Deng said. But the outcome of the Shanghai case is much less predictable.

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