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Apple’s ability to use Siri as a competitive weapon in the 1.33 billion people market of China – its second-largest market by revenue – could be compromised. A Beijing court has now ruled against Apple by upholding the validity of a patent related to the personal assistant feature held by a Chinese company called Zhizhen Network Technology.

The ruling clears the way for Zhizhen to continue its own case patent infringement case against Apple. Specifically, the Shanghai-based firm is now asking the court to block Apple from selling devices with Siri installed. The iPhone maker is of course expected to appeal the verdict…

Apple became aware of the problem in 2012 after adding Mandarin and Cantonese to Siri’s list of languages. Zhizhen’s technology, dubbed Xiao iRobot, began life in 2003 as a text-based chatbot.

Zhizhen filed its case against Apple in the summer of 2012. Apple responded by taking the country’s State Intellectual Property Office to court, seeking to invalidate Zhizhen’s patent.

It’s important to note that the patent still exists, but the trial to see if Apple is actually infringing it has not occurred yet.

BBC explains that Zhizhen’s technology later evolved into call-centre software used by the Chinese government and several companies. Moreover, Zhizhen built a voice-controlled software for smart TVs, cars and smartphones and even released an iPhone app for finding restaurants, train times and stock prices.

Be that as it may, Zhizhen patented its technology back in 2004, two years before Apple filed its first patent application related to Siri.

BBC has more:

Zhizhen noted that it had filed for the intellectual rights to the underlying technology in 2004 and had been granted the patent two years later.

Apple countered that Siri used a different process to power its voice-recognition tech – a court has yet to rule on this claim.

The news gathering organization has this statement from an Apple spokesperson:

Apple believes deeply in protecting innovation, and we take intellectual property rights very seriously. Apple created Siri to provide customers with their own personal assistant by using their voice.

Unfortunately, we were not aware of Zhizhen’s patent before we introduced Siri, and we do not believe we are using this patent.

While a separate court considers this question, we remain open to reasonable discussions with Zhizhen.

I hope “reasonable discussions” with the Chinese firm will lead to an amicable solution because – say what you will about Siri –  it’s one of the major features of iPhone, iPod touch and iPad devices and among Apple’s key selling points.

The worst-case scenario: Apple does not prevail in a higher court, Apple does not negotiate a licensing deal with Zhizhen and thereby Apple is ordered to disable Siri on all devices sold in China. I hope common sense prevails and that the parties will soon reach an agreement.