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.