A software patent problem continues to hang over VoiceXML 2.0, which reached proposed recommendation status this month. The problem is that the Patent Advisory Group that was supposed to make sure that any relevant patents would be offered on royalty free terms never got Rutgers University to respond in regards to a relevant patent. Rutgers previous position was to offer it under Reasonable and Non-Discriminatory Terms (RAND), which could mean license fees.
While the patent is an immediate concern for the VoiceXML standard, I believe it is an equal concern for the SALT standard that is primarily advocated by Microsoft. It may also be an issue for certain types of software used to audio enable the web for blind users. Furthermore, it could affect proprietary IVR systems that use URLs to retrieve “audio enabled pages”.
Last year the W3C established a Royalty-Free Patent Policy with respect to software patents affecting potential standards. The policy states that the W3C will not adopt any standard that cannot be implemented on a royalty free basis. While it is acceptable that a relevant technology be patented, the owner of each relevant patent must offer the patent under a royalty free license, as opposed to RAND.
The patent that is assigned to Rutgers University is titled “Method and system for audio access to information in a wide area computer network” and was originally filed in December 1996.
I am not a lawyer and I have not read the entire patent filing, but it seems fairly clear to me that this patent covers some uses of VoiceXML and SALT. Specifically, the patent makes claims regarding the use of an audio web server to make data from resources on a wide area network available through an audio interface. The patent focuses on audio enabling existing data resources that are accessed a WAN, and it suggests that the WWW is an example of such a network.
While audio enabling standard websites is a common use of VoiceXML and a likely use of SALT via Microsoft Speech Server, it is by no means the only use. However, the patent also refers to audio enabling databases. I could not find any claims related to conducting transactions, only accessing data.
But, many of the claims (and there are 31 of them) are very vague. Hopefully, that backfires and reduces the effectiveness of the patent. Many of the claims refer to other claims and are very difficult to keep straight.
The common reaction of software engineers to software patents that they hear about in the news is that they are obvious ideas and should never have been granted. Of course, lots of inventions sound obvious once you hear them described. Although I am obviously biased, I do think much of this particular patent falls into the obvious category. There are some novel and interesting ideas, but those ideas account for only a small handful of the claims. Also, very similar work was conducted at Lucent, and possibly at IBM and Motorola, as early as 1994.