Patent lawsuit threatens inexpensive iPad app to let autistic speak

speakforyourselfThe iPad can be great for letting people read, but it can be just as good for letting certain people speak. As I’ve previously mentioned, autistic, nonverbal, and otherwise disabled people who have trouble talking can make use of AAC (augmentative and alternative communication) apps to say the words they can’t say for themselves.

However, today I learned about a legal battle shaping up against a popular $299.99 AAC app for the iPad called Speak For Yourself. Dana Nieder, parent of a 4-year-old nonverbal child and extremely satisfied user of Speak For Yourself, posts to her blog that a pair of major AAC companies, Semantic Compaction Systems and Prentke Romich Company, who make their money selling multi-thousand-dollar AAC hardware devices, are suing the makers of Speak For Yourself for patent infringement.

I went on to learn that customers have been requesting an app for quite some time from PRC, but they seem to have no interest in joining the iPad market, much to the dismay of the users. And why not? Why not make an app that could be used by some of their nonverbal consumers? Why not create a more affordable alternative to the large devices, something that could conceivably bring a voice to many, many more nonverbal children and adults? I want to think that it’s not just about the money . . . but it seems to clearly be just about the money.

Interestingly, PRC’s mission statement starts with “We Believe Everyone Deserves A Voice.” Perhaps “We Believe Everyone Who Purchases Our Devices Deserves A Voice” or “We Believe Everyone Except Those Needing An Affordable App Deserves a Voice” might be more appropriate alternatives.

Unfortunately, as Leigh Beadon points out on Techdirt, this doesn’t seem to be a case of a patent troll throwing its weight around—these are companies that developed the technology and are using it themselves. And just as copyright owners don’t have to sell or license their work cheaply or at all (apart from limited, very specific compulsory situations), patent holders don’t have to sell their products cheaply either.

It’s hard not to sympathize with her position, even though the lawsuit and the patent in question, #5,920,303, both appear to be solid. As Dana’s story gains traction, we can only hope that it will increase social pressure on PRC and possibly shame them into allowing Speak For Yourself to survive by offering them an affordable license, or at least releasing their own iPad app at a similar price point—but as we’ve seen with pharmaceutical companies, the holders of life-saving and life-changing patents often don’t seem too bothered about withholding them no matter what it does to their public image.

Hopefully Nieder and those in similar positions will be able to find some sort of reasonably-priced alternative to these hugely-expensive devices if the courts rule in favor of the big companies. It’s easy to be sympathetic to their position.

8 Comments on Patent lawsuit threatens inexpensive iPad app to let autistic speak

  1. That is sooooo frustrating for our students and families who can finally use great high tech devices that are totally accessible.

  2. Thank you for helping this story to spread. I think it’s important to note that my daughter is nonverbal, but is not autistic. I point this out solely because many people assume that nonverbal children = autistic, but this is not the case. These communication apps are invaluable to all nonverbal people, both children and adults, regardless of the specific diagnosis or source of their nonverbal-ness.

    Thanks,
    Dana Nieder

  3. Thanks for letting me know. I’ve corrected the article.

  4. Clytie Siddall // April 1, 2012 at 1:31 am //

    The iPhone and iPad have made a huge difference to disabled people in general. Not only do you not have to buy very expensive, bulky, limited only-one-purpose devices, but you also are able to carry or keep with you a single device which does so many things for you.

    IOS is intuitive to use (which removes so many barriers for disabled people) and it has quite good accessibility support. Pretty much everyone understands how to use a mainstream touchscreen device, so you’re not stuck (usually at a time of very low personal resources) trying to explain how to access the information you need the other person to see.

    It’s really reprehensible that any supposedly disability-focussed company would ignore or block adoption of its functions on the iOS platform. :(

  5. Wait a minute. Someone allegedly copies the hard work and literally thousands of hours of engineers, speech pathologists and linguists you are feeling sorry for the people that plagiarized ? So what if someone copied your post and claimed it to be theirs? If your business depended on this I would think you would be inclined to sue as well.

    If these SLP’s did in fact copy then they should be stripped of their license. This is a highly unethical act.

    Sure the I pad is a cool technology, but it is no match for a full featured communication device. People often overlook all the work that companies like PRC have done to advance the communication abilities and without companies like this the I Pad would not be as popular as it is.

  6. “We have no plans to develop or release an app version of our software.”
    Nice.
    https://www.facebook.com/PrentkeRomichCompany

  7. Yes clearly the “stole” the idea.

    Sure people have been using card systems for close to a century , but if someone makes a computer version, clearly its a novel idea nobody would think of and its therefore totally cool to apply for hundreds of overly broad patents on obvious and non original ideas to stop competition.

    Because… ah… rich people?

  8. This is now a somewhat dated thread but the two big issues – the patent infringement and the compelling need for the app – continue to exist. I’ve scanned the patent and continue to be surprised at how broadly patents can be written for a software interface. We can all be very thankful patent laws didn’t exist back when paper was developed. Or when the wheel was developed. Or when hot air was discovered to rise. We would live in a much different world. Given Apple’s penchant to seek redress behind patent law it can be disappointing but shouldn’t be a surprise when they enforce a yet-to-be-adjudicated patent infringement issue by proactively manipulating the marketplace they control. It’s their ball and they get to set the rules however it pleases them. Regardless the impact on people and society. (sigh) They’re good engineers but they have no social conscience. Which is a scary thing to say considering how much their technology influences society. And why PRC can’t figure out a way to make sufficient profit on a patent they have been unable to bring to market at a marketable price point while others have speaks to the depravity of their greed. Their commitment to their mission statement is a joke. Shame! The need is great and a solution should be addressable. Beyond that the only thing left is bad karma. Good luck with that. I hope for everybody’s sake something gets worked out. ASAP.

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