September 29, 2005 7:12 PM PDT

Yahoo accused of poaching speech engineers

A correction was made to this story. Read below for details.
update A California court has been asked to temporarily bar about a dozen engineers hired by Yahoo from working on interactive speech technology at the search engine after the company they recently left filed a lawsuit accusing Yahoo of trying to steal trade secrets.

A complaint filed in Santa Clara County Superior Court on Wednesday by Nuance Communications argues that the speech technology company is likely to prevail on the merits of the case regarding misappropriation of trade secrets and unfair competition, among other claims. The complaint also argues that Nuance would suffer "great and irreparable injury" if the employees were not blocked from doing work on speech technology at Yahoo.

The complaint also asks that Yahoo be barred temporarily from employing any former or current Nuance employees to work on such technology. Nuance makes the technology behind many airlines' automated voice interactive flight information systems.

A hearing on the matter was scheduled for Friday.

In its court documents, Nuance alleges that Yahoo "gutted" its research and development unit and hired away 13 of its engineers. Nuance also alleges that its former vice president of research and development, Larry Heck, helped Yahoo hire a dozen of his engineering staff.

"We think the complaint is completely without merit and we are going to defend ourselves vigorously," said Yahoo spokeswoman Kiersten Hollars. She declined to offer further comment. Heck could not be reached for comment.

Menlo Park, Calif.-based Nuance alleges that the engineers were at least 75 percent done with a big project when Heck left to work for Santa Clara, Calif.-based Yahoo. Nuance planned to sell the technology to Yahoo and other Internet companies who want to offer voice-activated search and directory services to telephone users.

Nuance did not return a call seeking comment, and a lawyer for the company declined to comment beyond what was in the court documents.

Yahoo's main rival, Google, has also been accused of hiring away a key executive--in this case from Microsoft. Microsoft sued Google and the executive, Kai-Fu Lee, arguing that his setting up Google's China development center would violate a noncompete agreement he signed with Microsoft.

Microsoft offered to settle the case with Google after a judge restricted the work activities Lee could do until the case is resolved.

 

Correction: This story incorrectly stated that the court had ruled on the temporary restraining order requested by Nuance Communications.

 

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