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.)


  1. Apple’s behaving like a real stinker here. It could have insisted on a court order and then used its cadre of lawyers to delay that order long enough to give every parent who might want the app to get it. And if it looked like the decision might go the wrong way, Apple could have rendered the decision ‘moot’ by pulling the app, conveniently avoiding the chance of a court order that might have forced it to yank the app off iPads.

    This is yet another illustration of why leaving patent law to patent lawyers, as we have done in recent decades, is a Most Bad Idea. We used to have a ban on business method patents (i.e. Amazon’s one-click purchasing). We don’t any more. Patent lawyers make buckets of money getting and squabbling over those patents. These patents on methods that help children, are even worse. It should be completely and utterly impossible to patent methods for teaching or working with disabled children.

    Keep in mind that the governing factor in copyright and patent law is the public interest. The Constitution specifically states that. No public interest is served by forcing the parents of disabled children to forgo something useful for their child.

    Perhaps those who’re technical gifted can set up an underground organization to jailbreak iPads and install this app for those who need it. And the parents, in appreciation, could donate the cost of the app (perhaps anonymously) to Speak for Yourself’s legal defense. That’d be a win-win for everyone but the jerks who’re suing.

    And Apple, with roughly $100 billion in the bank, could make up for this ‘stinker’ behavior by funding the Speak for Yourself’s legal team. That’d make it very clear that, having decided to market iPads as educational devices, they intend to protect those who make those sorts of apps. These are ‘rich’ corporations. They’re typically parents with high expenses and tight budgets.

    –Michael W. Perry, editor of Eugenics and Other Evils by G. K. Chesterton

  2. The legal penalties for copyright infringement are:

    Infringer pays the actual dollar amount of damages and profits.
    The law provides a range from $200 to $150,000 for each work infringed.
    Infringer pays for all attorneys fees and court costs.
    The Court can issue an injunction to stop the infringing acts.
    The Court can impound the illegal works.
    The infringer can go to jail.

    Somebody’s in trouble!

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