A few months ago I wrote about the patent situation surrounding an app called “Speak For Yourself” that allows autistic and otherwise nonverbal people to communicate with others. A couple of companies who make much more expensive AAC (augmentative and alternative communication) devices are suing the makers of Speak For Yourself for infringing 100 of their patents.
Dana Nieder, mother of a four-year-old nonverbal child named Maya, has updated her blog to note that thanks to the app, Maya’s communication skills with the app have improved dramatically over just a few weeks. But she also notes that, as of Monday, Apple had removed Speak For Yourself from the iTunes store after the plaintiffs in the patent lawsuit asked it to. The removal was not ordered by the court—the companies had not even asked the court for such an order. But Apple pulled it anyway.
While the app still exists on Dana’s iPad, the removal means that it can no longer be updated through the app store, and changes to Apple’s operating system could break it permanently if its creators can’t push out an updated version.
And there’s another threat, too, perhaps a more sinister one. What would happen if PRC/SCS contacted Apple and asked them to remotely delete the copies of Speak for Yourself that were already purchased, citing that the app was (allegedly) illegally infringing upon their patents, and stating that they wanted it entirely removed from existence? Prior to last week, I would have (naively) thought that such an aggressive move, harmful to hundreds of innocent nonverbal children, would have been unfathomable. Now, it appears to be a real concern. Prior to last week I would have (naively) thought that even if such a request was made, Apple would never comply without a court injunction forcing them to do so. Now, it appears that they very well might.
As I mentioned in the last article, the patent claim does appear to be legitimate. It’s unfortunate that these companies don’t have any plans for iPad apps of their own, and that Speak For Yourself seems to be the only app or device Maya has been able to make work for herself. It’s not clear that this situation is going to have a happy ending for people who use the plucky little program.
(Also covered on Time.)