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From AllVoice to AllPatent: Milking the Speech Recognition Business with Parliamentary Support
Commemorate Banana Union Day

Allvoice Computing PLC, originally a text-processor service company based in Devon, UK, has obtained two broad and trivial patents in US and UK on the logics of interfacing between speech recognition and word processing. Allvoice tried to sell this interface as a standalone software product, but was apparently more successful in extracting rents from producers of full-fledged speech recognition software, such as IBM and Lernout & Hauspie, by means of patent litigation. Meanwhile Allvoice's business seems to be focussing on patent enforcement. Allvoice's director John Mitchell has also become a patent-political activist and an archetype of a business model which british parliamentarians are promoting in UK and EU.
In November 2002, AllVoice attacked the new owner of "Naturally Speaking", ScanSoft, again in a US court. To date, AllVoice has asserted its patents only in US courts, even when the infringers were European companies such as Lernout & Hauspie (L&H). During the UK software patent consultation in 2000, Allvoice director John Mitchell explained that patent enforcement in UK is difficult due to misunderstandings about lack of patentability of software and other traditional obstacles.

In public statements, AllVoice has pretended to be a producer of voice recognition software. They are not. They are a consulting firm which wrote a small interface managment program and is now using interface patents to extract rents from those who write real voice recognition software.

The director of AllVoice, John Mitchell, has taken an active role in the patent-political process in UK.

While AllVoice was fighting L&H, they got a motion of support for their patents and their fight put down by MPs in the UK parliament.

Since then Mitchell has appeared on Patent Office panels and discussions when they have wanted an archetypal "little guy who won through".

Mitchell is also involved in a scheme for state subsidized patent litigation which is being promoted by UK patent activists in the EU.

Allvoice's home town Devon is an unemployment blackspot, and the description of them as a tiny company in speech-recognition in an unemployment blackspot who were saved by their patents and have now licensed their technology is bang on.

In the context of the discussions about the proposed Software Patent Directive in the European Parliament in 2002/03, the rapporteur Arlene McCarthy MEP (UK Labour), who is closely cooperating with the pro-patent forces in the UK government, has repeatedly referred Allvoice as a model case which demonstrates that "the small patently needs protection". This was also written into her report to the European Parliament:

Nobody in Europe can have any interest in seeing the destruction of small European software developers. On the contrary, large corporations are often dependent upon the innovativeness of small businesses and patents allow them to turn their creativity to good account, as witness the world-wide non-exclusive licence recently granted to a US multinational by a ten-person company located in an employment blackspot in south-west England in respect of all of their voice-recognition software patents.
Xavier Drudis Ferran comments on the Allvoice business model:

The Allvoice example illustrates two typical patent myths:
SME can benefit from software patentsIn fact to benefit in software patents means to behave as a "patent parasite" that does not get money from the solutions it contributes -WordExpress- but from the obstacles it legally imposes on others to solve useful problems.
Having software patents in the US and not having them in the EU is a competitive disadvantage for the EU.In fact AllVoice has taken advantage of the fact the US market is vulnerable to software patents and the EU not (so much), by attacking US companies from UK. So the situation is a competitive advantage for the EU, at least from an inmoral business point of view.

[...]

After a quick read of the 2 claims below I can hardly see the difference between the 2 patents, one should be prior art for the other, and any is as worthy of monopoly as the notion of proofreading with a karaoke.

You can say that implementing these claims may really be a worthwhile task, perfectly covered by copyright on the code, while just publishing the idea of using a multimedia computer for storing written and oral text together to allow human proofreading of automated speech recognition is no contribution at all, and certainly not worth the power to stop anyone from using their multimedia computers in such a way. Everybody knows computers can do this, the meat is getting them to do it (the code, the part copytright covers).

[...]

These poor little companies so successful thanks to the patent system are as worthy of praise as the Lazarillo de Tormes (the character, not the anonymous ancient Spanish novel). They are the typical opportunist geniuses that find a great way of making money without any work to earn it (or besides anything else they do worthy of earning money with). And then people start to worship those smart guys and you get a whole society of lazy people trying to emulate them by competing in bribery instead of productivity. It should be a concern of economic policy to let people have a honest way of living, rather than to degrade the market to mere picaresque.

Lernout & Hauspie went bankrupt during litigation with Allvoice, but this litigation was probably not more than a nail in their coffin. The following links contain details about the bankruptcy and associated scandals:

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english version 2004/08/16 by Hartmut PILCH