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Apple, AT&T and Others Sued Over Voicemail Patent Violation

Klausner Technologies claims it hold patents on technology used by Apple's iPhone and VoIP products from Cablevision, Comcast, and Ebay.

Melissa J. Perenson, PC World

Monday, December 03, 2007 02:20 PM PST

Apple's been hit by a slew of iPhone-related lawsuits since its sexy phone launched this year, and that number increased today with legal action filed by Klausner Technologies.

According to the suit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas, the Apple iPhone's much-touted, well-implemented Visual Voicemail feature infringes on two existing Klausner Technologies' patents. AT&T, which exclusively sells the iPhone, also was named in the suit.

The suit also names Comcast, Cablevision and Skype, companies that Klausner Technologies alleges have also violated the same patents as Apple and AT&T, but not because of the iPhone--it's due to similar features those companies offer to their customers.

Cablevision was named for its Optimum Voicemail, Comcast for its Digital Voice Voicemail, and eBay for its Skype Voicemail.

Foundation for the Lawsuit

Klausner Technologies cites its U.S. Patents 5,572,576 and 5,283,818, separately granted in 1994 and 1996, which describe a "telephone answering device linking displayed data with recorded audio message." Both patents were issued in the mid-1990s, and both cover how a telephone answering device links displayed data with a recorded audio message.

Visual Voicemail, a feature of the iPhone, enables users to selectively identify and listen to messages in their voicemail by using the iPhone's interface. The phone identifies callers and when they left their message--users can then listen to each message individually, rather than having to use key commands to fast-forward, rewind, stop, and start messages as they do with many other phones.

The company has previously sued Time Warner's America Online (AOL) and Vonage Holdings for infringing on these copyrights. Klausner later settled with those other companies and has licensed its patents to them.

In one of the television advertisements for the iPhone, user "Doug" pithily describes visual voicemail as "One of the greatest advancements in the history of mankind, without question."

Klausner Technologies was founded by Judah Klausner, who claims to have invented the Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) and electronic organizer. Klausner says that Apple's Newton PDA was covered under an OEM patent license granted twenty years ago under his patent 4,117,542.

An Apple spokesperson contacted for this story indicated that Apple does not comment about pending litigation.

What Does It All Mean?

Never mind the David vs. Goliath angle on this story. After all, NTP had a successful patent suit against Research in Motion's popular BlackBerry; then, in September, it brought suit against Verizon, AT&T, Sprint Nextel, and T-Mobile USA.

None of this will impact consumers for now. Instead, the case will be tied up in the courts among the legal wranglers. I highly doubt, for example, that Apple would let things deteriorate to a point where it would have to reneg on one of the iPhone's groundbreaking features.

More interesting to note: Klausner's own assessment of the relative markets. Klausner's suit against Apples pegs damages and future royalties estimated at $360 million, just for the Apple iPhone.

Contrast that to the $300 million the company is seeking from the voice-over-IP services from Comcast, Cablevision, and Ebay combined. Given the ongoing surge of interest in VoIP services, I find it very interesting that Klausner's take on the market clearly puts more import behind the iPhone and its potential distribution impact than it does on VoIP services.

Peter Cohen of Macworld contributed to this story.