Firm claims Apple’s Siri, Google devices violate 1998 speech patent

In a sweeping lawsuit, a Colorado shell company is suing the entire mobile phone industry over a patent for inventions where “Oral input is used to control a digital computer.”

The lawsuit singles out Apple’s (s aapl) iPhone 4S and its Siri voice assistant as well as a range of phone makers like Samsung and Sony(s sne) that use Google Voice Actions (s goog) technology. The claim also names Research In Motion (s rimm) for BlackBerry Voice commands and Microsoft (s msft) for Microsoft Speech Commands.

Records show that the patent was issued to Jerry Potter in 1998. Last year, Potter assigned the patent to a Texas shell company which in turn assigned it to a Colorado shell company called Potter Voice LLC that is suing the phone makers.

It’s unclear if Potter was actually a pioneering inventor of voice technology or whether the patent is another in a series of dubious patents that has been driving a never-ending series of court fights in the mobile industry. Patent standards became particularly lax in the late 1990’s as the Patent Office issued thousands of “business method” patents that have subsequently attracted criticism from law makers and the Supreme Court.

The abstract of US patent 5729659 says:

Oral input is used to control a digital computer. Associative searching techniques of tabular data structures are used in conjunction with rules and conventions derived from natural language to facilitate the use of oral input. The method is capable of being implemented in connection with conventional sequential computers, associative single-instruction multiple data computers and parallel processors.

Patents like these have become the fuel of global litigation engulfing the smartphone industry. In some cases, the phone makers buy the patents themselves. Other times, private hedge funds form shell companies that don’t produce anything but do make a business of suing companies that do — a practice known as trolling.

The Supreme Court has responded to the patent problem in part by tightening the definition of “obvious” and Congress last year passed patent legislation that makes it easier to attack suspect patents (the law doesn’t apply to older patents).

Yesterday, Apple CEO Tim Cook complained about the ceaseless patent battles, saying “I’ve always hated litigation .. We just want people to invent their own stuff.”

Here is a copy of the complaint:

Potter Voice v. Apple Et Al