Nuance Suit Against Vlingo Could Shut Down Yahoo’s Voice-Driven Mobile Search Service

[Story Updated 4:40 p.m. 6/18/06; see below]

If a Texas district court grants an injunction sought by Burlington, MA-based Nuance Communications (NASDAQ: NUAN), it could force Yahoo to shut down the voice-enabled version of its mobile search platform. The search tool is powered by software from Vlingo, a Cambridge, MA-based startup Nuance sued yesterday for alleged patent infringement.

The Yahoo (NASDAQ: YHOO) platform, called oneSearch with Voice, works on Blackberry Pearl, Blackberry Curve, and Blackberry 8800 series smartphones, and allows users to enter Web search queries such as “Boston Red Sox scores” or “United Airlines Flight 541” simply by speaking them into the device. Vlingo’s deal to get its speech recognition technology included in oneSearch was seen as a major coup for the Harvard Square startup, which has about 35 employees and recently closed a $20 million Series B financing round led by Yahoo.

Nuance filed its lawsuit in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Texas, a jurisdiction famous for favoring plaintiffs in patent-infringement cases. Xconomy obtained a copy of Nuance’s complaint. It alleges that Vlingo’s speech recognition software—including “without limitation, products and services Vlingo is supplying to Yahoo! oneSearch”—infringes on U.S. Patent No. 6,766,295, which was issued to Nuance engineers Hy Murviet and Ashvin Kannan in 2004. The patent covers a technique for making computerized transcription of a users’ speech more accurate over time using audio samples from multiple sessions such as phone calls.

The suit seeks unspecified monetary damages and attorney fees, and also asks the court to “preliminarily and permanently restrain” Vlingo and its business partners from making, using, and selling the allegedly infringing software. Those partners would presumably include Yahoo.

“Nuance has invested significant resources in developing technologies, building solutions and acquiring intellectual property,” Jo-Anne Sinclair, vice president and general counsel of Nuance Communications, said in a press release announcing the lawsuit. “These inventions and the intellectual property protecting those inventions are a cornerstone of our business. We take great pride in and place significant value on our patents and will aggressively protect our intellectual property rights through all available means.”

A spokesperson for Vlingo said that company executives were still reading through the lawsuit and were not ready to comment publicly.

While their technologies may or may not be similar, Nuance and Vlingo have definitely shared personnel. Vlingo’s chief technology officer and co-founder, Michael Phillips, is a former Nuance employee; he landed there in 2003 when Nuance (called Scansoft at the time) acquired Speechworks, a Boston-based MIT spinoff where Phillips was principal scientist. After Phillips left Nuance, he waited a year for his non-compete agreement with the company to expire before starting Vlingo, according to the Boston Globe.

(Full disclosure: Mike Phillips is brother-in-law to Greg Huang, Xconomy’s Seattle editor. Greg was not involved in the reporting, writing, or editing of this story.)

Update 4:40 p.m. 6/18/06:

Vlingo sent Xconomy the following response to Nuance’s lawsuit from Vlingo CEO Dave Grannan:

“We believe this lawsuit is unfounded. Nuance has referenced a patent that has serious limitations in its coverage. The patent does not apply to vlingo-developed technology nor the third-party licenses we employ; moreover, we have significant doubts regarding the patent’s validity. Industry observers will recognize this as typical counterproductive behavior of filing frivolous lawsuits in an attempt to stifle competition.

Vlingo will fight the lawsuit aggressively to its conclusion, while continuing to build on our tremendous momentum we’ve gained in less than one year since our public launch.”

Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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4 responses to “Nuance Suit Against Vlingo Could Shut Down Yahoo’s Voice-Driven Mobile Search Service”

  1. Patently Ridiculous says:

    Hasn’t anyone investigated the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Texas? Isn’t one of the judges there related to a patent attorney who files a lot of lawsuits there?

  2. tom summit says:

    I was wondering if the patent was from work that Speechworks had done and bought by Scansoft or technology developed by Scansoft itself?

  3. Ex-Vlingo user says:

    Yay! Go for it, Nuance! Put Vlingo in its place!

  4. zerothat says:

    Nuance’s conduct is simply despicable.

    Jo-Anne Sinclair is personally responsible for stagnating US industry.

    You know Nuance, you guys have to live in the world too.