VoiceBox Claims Amazon Infringed on Six Patents When Developing Alexa

Yesterday Amazon was hit with an infringement lawsuit from VB Assets which controls patents originated by conversational AI technology developer, VoiceBox Technologies. Former employees and backers of VoiceBox are claiming that when developing Alexa, Amazon infringed on six patents related to natural language and speech recognition. From the first claim of the lawsuit, VoiceBox says, “It invented what Amazon itself has described as “Echo-like” products long before Amazon.”

VoiceBox was founded in 2001, in Bellevue, Washington which is not far from Amazon’s headquarters. A decade later VoiceBox reached out to Amazon about licensing its voice software. The companies held two meetings in 2011 where discussions centered around the VoiceBox patented technology but there was ultimately no partnership formed. Amazon introduced Alexa and the Echo speaker three years later in 2014, which “were strikingly similar to the patented technology that VoiceBox Technologies showed Amazon in 2011,” the lawsuit notes.

Foreshadowing Smart Speakers in 2006

Below is a local news report from 2006 that captures a former vice president of VoiceBox, Tom Freeman, demonstrating how to use the innovative solution. As you can see, VoiceBox demonstrated several features that are commonly found on smart speakers today including access to music, asking about the weather, looking up recipes, and requesting sports schedules.

Targeting VoiceBox Employees

Not only is the claim that Amazon infringed on VoiceBox technology, but Amazon started recruiting the company’s employees. According to LinkedIn, there are currently 35 Amazon employees that previously worked at VoiceBox. Of those 35 people, mostly engineers, 17 of them departed from VoiceBox and went directly to Amazon between 2015 and 2018. Interestingly, the majority of the employees (11 of the 17) departed VoiceBox in 2017 once Alexa was established within the market.

Noteworthy VoiceBox employees that now call Amazon home include the former VoiceBox chief scientist, Philippe Di Cristo, who remains the speech and voice technology leader at Amazon today. Also of note is the former VoiceBox director of engineering, Jeff Prachar,  who is a senior engineer manager at Amazon. Di Cristo joined Amazon in 2016 and Pracher joined in 2015. These hires were both relatively early the development of Alexa but after the product launch of Amazon Echo in 2014 and not during the 2011-14 period when it was under initial development.

Executives and engineers do change jobs frequently, particularly in hot technology categories so there is often contention over what type of secrets, if any, might spread between organization due to defections. Google faced this recently when AI luminaries John Giannandrea and Ian Goodfellow both left for Apple in 2018 and 2019 respectively.

Selling VoiceBox

In 2017, VoiceBox CEO at the time, Mike Kennewick, sent Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos a letter suggesting that Amazon acquire the company. Meetings were later held to discuss the business options, where Amazon once again had eyes on VoiceBox patents. However, discussions ended with no action by Amazon according to reporting by Geekwire.

Nuance later arrived with a purchase offer and formally acquired VoiceBox on May 18, 2018. The transaction was completed for $82 million according to Pitchbook records  At that time, it appears several VoiceBox patents were split off of the company into VB Assets. It is unclear whether VB Assets is wholly owned by former VoiceBox investors, by Nuance Communications, or some combination of the two.

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