Apple logo on shop front in Paris

Apple facing revived Chinese patent lawsuit over Siri

Image credit: REUTERS/Christian Hartmann

An AI company, Shanghai Zhizhen Network Technology, has filed a lawsuit against Apple in a Shanghai court, accusing Apple of infringing on its patent for a virtual assistant. This could potentially force Apple to temporarily halt the sale of products featuring Siri.

Shanghai Zhizhen is demanding ¥10bn (£1.1bn) in damages over Apple’s alleged use of its patented technologies by the Californian computing company to build its own virtual assistant, Siri.

Shanghai Zhizhen owns a patent for a virtual assistant – 'Xiao i Robot' – which has some similarities to Siri and other virtual assistants; principally, it is capable of answering spoken questions and holding simple conversations. Xiao i Robot is used by companies such as China Telecom, China Mobile and several large banks.

Shanghai Zhizhen first sued Apple in 2012, shortly after Siri became available in China. In June – following a lengthy legal battle which passed through Beijing’s No. 1 Intermediate People’s Court and the Beijing Higher People’s Court – the Chinese Supreme Court ruled that Shanghai Zhizhen does indeed own the patent for the virtual assistant, overturning Apple's previous successful appeal verdict.

In this latest lawsuit, Shanghai Zhizhen repeats its argument that Apple infringed on its patent and calls for hefty damages, as well as for Apple to be prevented from “manufacturing, using, promising to sell, selling and importing” its devices in China. As Siri is incorporated into almost all of Apple’s devices – featuring in its computers, phones, tablets, wearables, television and smart speaker – a ruling to oust Siri from China would in effect push Apple entirely out of the country.

The Wall Street Journal reports that such a ban is ultimately very unlikely. However, it has reported that Shanghai Zhizhen may file for a preliminary injunction. This could allow a local court to force Apple to halt the sale, production and use of products featuring Siri in China for the duration of the trial.

This could be damaging for Apple, which is one of a very small handful of American tech giants to have a significant presence in China. China is Apple’s largest market after the US, having earned more than £7bn in the country in the last quarter. This comes at a time when Apple and other established smartphone manufacturers are under intense pressure in the Chinese smartphone market from younger homegrown manufacturers including Xiaomi, TCL and Oppo. According to Counterpoint’s Market Monitor, Huawei surpassed Samsung to become the top player in the global smartphone market in the last quarter.

The latest legal battle also comes amid bubbling trade tensions between the US and China, with tech companies such as Huawei and TikTok directly in the Trump administration's firing line.

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