Mycroft AI’s Legal War Against a ‘Patent Troll’ Heats Up
Mycroft AI is facing a legal battle over its open-source voice assistant that could spell the end of the startup. The increasingly heated argument has grown from a patent-infringement lawsuit to encompass accusations of inciting death threats and the future of U.S. intellectual property rules.
Patent Infringement and Patent Trolls
Mycroft AI’s Linux-based voice assistant platform uses an open-source license and has been integrated into various smart devices since it was founded in 2015, including two smart speakers developed by Mycroft. According to a company called Voice Tech Corp., Mycroft violated two of its patents to do so. In December, intellectual property law firm Tumey LLP wrote to Mycroft on behalf of Voice Tech, offering a non-exclusive license of those patents for a price, but Mycroft disregarded the notes. Voice Tech filed its lawsuit in January in eastern Texas, a district court that is known for often siding with the plaintiff in these kinds of cases.
“[Voice Tech] is not a real company. They’re patent trolls who tried to force us to pay them to [avoid] a lawsuit,” Mycroft CEO Joshua Montgomery said in an interview with Voicebot. “They accuse and then demand money because of how long and expensive a legal case can be. It’s hard to make an economic case for not just paying patent trolls, so many companies make that choice.”
Voice Tech incorporated in late 2018, with a home in Tyler, Texas as its headquarters, according to the lawsuit. Though there are two separate patents, both are titled “Using voice commands from a mobile device to remotely access and control a computer.” One of the patents was granted in 2019, while the other, granted in 2017, was assigned to Voice Tech in 2019. Montgomery said the patents are so broad and vague as to be all but meaningless. In addition, the patents describe a mobile device transmitting audio to a separate computer, while Mycroft’s tech doesn’t involve a mobile device. The audio is processed in the cloud or on whatever device is running its platform.
Moving and Continuing to Fight
Montgomery has promised that he will fight the lawsuit to its end and not settle. In an early win, Mycroft, based in Missouri and with no presence in Texas, successfully petitioned the court to move the case to Missouri, a notable win for the startup.
“Refiling in Missouri is really good,” Montgomery said. “You can’t just willy-nilly file cases wherever you find a court that’s amenable. It has to be where the company actually operates. Filing it in Texas was another way they were trying to force us to settle.”
Mycroft appears to be the first company accused of patent infringement by Voice Tech, but Montgomery believes they won’t be the last should Mycroft lose. In addition to asserting its own innocence, Mycroft is now seeking to invalidate the patents entirely so that Voice Tech can’t go after another company.
“Those patents shouldn’t have been granted. The patent system is broken in this country, and the examiners don’t have enough time to actually check all of the existing patents. They also aren’t experts who can tell the difference between a real patent and something like this.”
Montgomery has publicized the ongoing dispute on Mycroft’s blog, asserting the company’s larger goal of invalidating Voice Tech’s patents. A recent post has generated a tangential legal dispute, however.
“In my experience, it’s better to be aggressive and ‘stab, shoot and hang’ them, then dissolve them in acid,” Montgomery wrote in the blog post.
The stab, shoot and hang line is actually a quote linking to an article about municipal broadband bans, but Voice Tech claimed in a new filing that the blog post counts as a threat of physical violence. The post included the name and contact information of Voice Tech’s attorney, and the company claims he now needs personal security after a rash of death threats and harassment. Voice Tech is now asking for triple the damages in compensation.
Montgomery has made it clear that Mycroft will continue fighting this case until it ends one way or another. He likened the legal battle to a fight against bullies in school who have to be faced to get them to stop.
“You have to stand up to bullies like these,” Montgomery said. “There’s no end to it until the patent system changes, but maybe it will [decrease] the times patent trolls go after small companies.”