THE LEGAL BATTLES OVER VOICE MESSAGING A young inventor from Florida says the technology is his. So does a small company in Texas. Both have sued to protect it.
By - Dexter Hutchins

(FORTUNE Magazine) – A LONE INVENTOR from Florida and a litigious company in Texas seem to have set themselves on a collision course. Both are trying to cash in on patents for voice messaging, a tiny but rapidly growing segment of the telecommunications industry. Robin Elkins, 30, and VMX Inc. each have patents that purport to cover the technology, which allows a computer to store verbal messages and play them back on command. And each has sought compensation from such computer behemoths as IBM and Wang Laboratories. ''We feel it's David vs. Goliath,'' says Charles Levy, one of two attorneys for Elkins. Elkins has already bested one giant. In May he sued IBM for patent infringement; in late August he won what he describes as a six-figure settlement. In return for paying Elkins, IBM gained the right to use his technology. Elkins, who has held a patent on voice messaging since 1978, is using IBM's settlement money as a war chest for further litigation. He is now suing Wang and Digital Equipment Corp., and Levy says Elkins intends to chase down all the companies (about 40) that allegedly are using his technology. When he's not filing lawsuits, Elkins runs his own company, R.K. Manufacturing, which makes lightweight battery chargers and low-power lasers (1984 sales: under $100,000). Voice messaging systems allow a computer to change words into digital signals, which are then stored. People can get their messages by calling the computer over a Touch-Tone phone -- or the computer can call them. Unlike a telephone answering machine, a voice messaging system can take thousands of messages of unlimited length without garbling or losing them. Elkins says he sent letters touting his technology, which he dreamed up as a high school student, to major computer companies; in effect, the companies said they saw no future in the technology, which has since become a $100-million-a-year business. The ponytailed Elkins never had the money to develop products in the voice messaging field, or even to hire a lawyer to defend his patent. His law firm, Feldman & Levy of Miami, agreed to take the case on a contingency basis, collecting its fee (40% of any settlement) only if Elkins won. VMX, which manufactures voice messaging equipment (1985 fiscal year sales: $32.4 million), received its patent several years after Elkins. Since 1983 it has sued a handful of companies for patent infringement. Several other companies, including IBM, have signed voluntary licensing agreements with VMX. An attorney for VMX says his company doesn't believe the Elkins patent covers VMX's voice messaging system. Donald Feldman, Elkins's other attorney, begs to differ. He thinks that Elkins and VMX will ''at some point'' end up fighting each other in court.