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Apple's legal loss suggests China getting serious about patents

In response to allegations of patent infringement over Apple's voice-recognition software, Siri, Apple filed suit against Chinese company Shanghai Zhizhen Network Technology to determine if that company's patent is valid.

A user accesses Siri on his Apple iPhone 4S.

A Chinese court recently rejected a claim by Apple that sought a firm ruling on the validity of a patent for a Chinese company's voice-controlled personal assistant called "Little I Robot," according to the Chinese official Xinhua news agency. This technology bears a striking resemblance to Apple's own Siri voice-recognition application that works with iOS devices. 

Therein lies the controversy. Is Apple violating the Chinese company's patent?

In February, Apple filed a lawsuit against China's Patent Review Committee and Shanghai Zhizhen Network Technology, accusing the Chinese company of violating the patents that cover Apple's Siri software. Apple took legal action in response to a 2012 lawsuit brought by Zhizhen. That lawsuit accused Apple of violating intellectual property rights for Zhizhen's voice-recognition technology, for which the Chinese company says it applied for a patent back in 2004 and received in 2006, according to Xinhua. Apple bought Siri Inc. in 2010, after the technology was developed in 2007. 

Apple has stated that it was not aware of Zhizhen's patent before Siri began appearing on iOS devices in 2011. 

"Apple created Siri to provide customers with their own personal assistant by using their voice," an Apple spokesperson told The Register in an e-mailed statement. "Unfortunately, we were not aware of Zhizhen's patent before we introduced Siri and we do not believe we are using this patent." 

While the Beijing First Intermediate Court said on Tuesday that Zhizhen's patent was valid, it remains to be seen whether Apple has violated that patent. A ruling has not yet been issued on the 2012 lawsuit filed by Zhizhen. 

"The most important thing is to ensure [Zhizhen’s] rights. The company doesn’t have a specific economic request," Yuan Yang, a lawyer for Zhizhen, told The Wall Street Journal. "In the end, it might be that the two sides could cooperate to deal with the problem and reach a win-win result." 

Apple says it will contest the Beijing court's ruling by taking the case to the Beijing Higher People's Court, according to Reuters.  

This legal battle may be an example of a shift in the way China approaches intellectual property. The country may begin enforcing it more strictly, notes Tim Worstallwriting in Forbes.

"China in general, Chinese courts and Chinese companies are only going to start taking the protection of [intellectual property] seriously when they’ve got some of their own IP to protect," writes Mr. Worstall. He adds that when Chinese companies have more intellectual property to protect, it will mean stronger enforcement of intellectual property laws in both the US and China. He writes, "The quid pro quo is always going to be that American law will protect Chinese IP in the US as long as, and as well as, Chinese law protects US IP in China." 

This is only the most recent in a series of legal tiffs faced by Apple in China, an important market for the company based in Cupertino, Calif. In 2012, for example, Apple paid $60 million to Chinese technology manufacturer Proview International Holdings Ltd. to settle a trademark legal dispute concerning the right for Apple to its iPad tablet in China under the iPad name, according to The Journal

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