A court in Delaware has mandated that Amazon compensate VB Assets with $46.7 million for violating four patents in its creation of the Echo smart speakers and Alexa virtual assistant. The lawsuit, initiated by Nuance Communications’ subsidiary VB Assets (formerly VoiceBox Technologies), asserted that they had previously developed a web-connected, circular speaker capable of responding to voice commands with a female, robotic tone.
The recent court decision, as per a Reuters report, requires Amazon to make payments through ongoing royalties instead of a single payment. This follows a jury’s conclusion that Amazon breached four VoiceBox patents, which involve network-based conversational services, a conversational voice interface, and integrating advertisements with the natural language processing of voice inputs. Initially, VB Assets accused Amazon of infringing on six patents.
Amazon has the opportunity to challenge this decision, while VoiceBox can seek additional expenses.
The dispute hinges on VoiceBox’s claim that it designed a prototype akin to Echo and Alexa well before Amazon’s announcement. A 2019 lawsuit included a YouTube video link, possibly from a 2006 Seattle’s King 5 News report, showcasing a speaker answering questions and responding to commands, using Internet-connected responses.
The lawsuit detailed VoiceBox’s work since 2001 on integrating natural language understanding into computer applications. Based in Bellevue, Washington, VoiceBox has developed voice-controlled applications for various GPS and automotive brands, as reported by Reuters.
Additionally, VoiceBox’s lawsuit alleged it showcased a Lexus car voice assistant named “Alexus” before Amazon unveiled “Alexa,” demonstrating VoiceBox’s conversational voice technology. It also accused Amazon of mimicking its ideas and hiring its employees after initial meetings in 2011 to discuss a collaboration for Amazon using VoiceBox’s natural language understanding services. Amazon launched Echo and Alexa in 2014 and reportedly held meetings concerning VoiceBox’s patents in 2017.
Amazon has not commented on these allegations, as per Ars Technica.
This judgment adds another challenge for Alexa, contrasting with a 2021 Delaware court ruling in favor of Alexa against IPA Technologies Inc. patent claims. Despite being a minor fraction of Amazon’s total revenue, this ruling comes at a critical time for Alexa, which was reported by Business Insider to potentially cost Amazon $10 billion in 2022. Amazon has not confirmed this figure.
In an effort to revitalize Alexa, Amazon disclosed its generative AI ambitions for the voice assistant in September, aiming to advance it to a level where customers would pay for its premium features. However, realizing this vision remains a distant goal for Amazon.