Amazon Echo devices
Amazon Echo devices | Daniel Berman | Bloomberg
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Seattle: A voice software technology developer is suing Amazon.com Inc., saying the e-commerce giant infringed on patents when developing software for the Alexa digital assistant.

VB Assets LLC, which owns the rights to some of the technology developed by voice software pioneer VoiceBox Technologies, said in a lawsuit filed in Delaware federal court on Monday that Amazon infringed on six of its patents covering conversational voice interfaces, commerce and advertisements.

Amazon didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

VoiceBox, founded in 2001, built software designed to help computers understand speech, and demonstrated in the mid-2000s a device that could do things like recite the weather, play music or search for recipes on command. The company provided speech services to companies including Toyota and Samsung.

In 2011, VoiceBox, based in Bellevue, Washington, not far from Amazon’s Seattle headquarters, contacted its larger neighbor to propose Amazon license its natural language understanding software, the complaint says. VoiceBox staff held two meetings with Amazon corporate development employees and technologists, but didn’t hear from Amazon afterward, according to the complaint.

Three years later, Amazon launched Alexa and the cylindrical Echo smart speaker the software powers. Alexa and the Echo were “strikingly similar to the patented technology that VoiceBox Technologies showed Amazon in 2011,” the complaint says.

Amazon subsequently hired VoiceBox’s chief scientist and held a recruiting event to encourage other employees to make the jump, the complaint says.

Mike Kennewick, then VoiceBox’s chief executive officer, sent a letter to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos in 2017 expressing concerns about Amazon’s recruiting and suggested that Amazon buy the firm. In subsequent meetings with Amazon that winter, VoiceBox handed over a summary of its patent portfolio, the complaint says.

VoiceBox was acquired last year by Nuance Communications Inc., a Massachusetts-based voice technology company. The patents at issue in the lawsuit filed on Monday didn’t follow VoiceBox’s portfolio to Nuance and were instead transferred to a new entity, VB Assets.

The new firm’s address was given in patent documents as a Bellevue residence owned by Kennewick. He is the only governing person on VB Assets’ listing in Washington state’s corporation database.

Dan Branley, a spokesman for VB Assets, said the firm is owned by a trust created for the benefit of employees and investors in the original VoiceBox. He declined to name any of them.

The case is VB Assets v. Amazon.com, 19-cv-1410, District of Delaware (Wilmington).

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