updated 9/30/2005 9:13:28 AM ET 2005-09-30T13:13:28

A Silicon Valley technology company is suing Yahoo Inc. for allegedly stealing trade secrets by hiring away 13 key engineers who had nearly completed its interactive speech technology project.

Nuance Communications Inc. said it would ask a Santa Clara County judge Friday to block Yahoo from allowing the engineers to work on the technology it intended to market to Yahoo and other Internet companies.

The California case concerns voice recognition technology that Nuance says was at least 75 percent complete before its vice president of research and development, Larry Heck, took a job at Santa Clara-based Yahoo. About a dozen Nuance engineers on the project followed him to Yahoo this month, leading Nuance to conclude that Yahoo is attempting to swipe its technology.

“Yahoo and Heck now plan to replicate this technology for Yahoo, depriving Nuance of a valuable corporate opportunity, and positioning Yahoo as a competitor,” Jeffrey Chanin, Nuance’s attorney, said in court documents.

The lawsuit, filed Wednesday in Santa Clara County Superior Court, is the latest by a technology company using courts to protect their intellectual turf when engineers or executives defect to other companies.

Earlier this month, a Washington state judge cleared the way for a former Microsoft Corp. executive to work for rival Google Inc., but ruled the executive could not work for his new employer on projects he worked on at Microsoft.

Chanin accused Yahoo and Heck of colluding in violation of California’s unfair competition law to “cannibalize” Nuance’s hard work, commitment and investment.

Menlo Park-based Nuance, which produces a variety of voice-automation software applications for customer-service centers, declined to comment on the lawsuit.

Yahoo, however, said it is not colluding with Heck or the other engineers to steal Nuance’s technology.

“We believe the claims are without merit and we plan to defend ourselves vigorously,” Yahoo spokeswoman Kiersten Hollars said.

The technology at issue is called Nuance Directory Assistance Automation, which allows phone users to get information, such as phone listings, without speaking to a person.

Nuance says the technology is relevant as cell phones and Internet telephony are merging in some of the hottest technological crazes. Internet auction site eBay Inc., for example, is acquiring Skype, a free computer-to-computer phone service, for more than $2 billion.

Nuance said that one day its voice technology could enable users to search the Web with their voices instead of typing on a keyboard.

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