A Little Girl Finds Her Voice Thanks to Threatened New iPad App

The parents of Maya, a three-year-old girl with speech problems, thought they found a solution with a tablet app called Speak for Yourself. Now a patent infringement lawsuit could put an end to it.

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Keith Wagstaff

Maya smiles and gives me a big hug as soon as I sit on the couch, or as big a hug as a tiny three-year-old girl can manage. Her mother, Dana Nieder, laughs and explains that because Maya has difficulty speaking, she often has to express herself in other ways.

She is as smart and curious as any other girl her age; the problem is that the muscles that control her speech are weak and disorganized, making saying a single word incredibly difficult. Doctors have run multiple tests but all they can determine is that it is probably a genetic condition.

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That’s where the Speak for Yourself comes in. The iPad app was developed by Heidi LoStracco and Renee Collender, two speech-language pathologists who spend their days in New Jersey teaching children with speech problems how to use Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) devices to interact with others.

Maya uses the app at home in the Bronx and at her special needs pre-school in Manhattan. On the Saturday morning that I visited her family, Maya decided she wanted a cereal bar.

Every word is only two taps away from the app’s home screen. All she had to do was tap the “Eat” button featuring a picture of a man eating an apple, which led to a number of words custom-picked by her parents. After tapping the icon for “Cake,” which was quickly vetoed by her mother, Maya settled on “Cereal Bar,” which caused the iPad to say the word out loud.

At $299.99, Speak for Yourself is relatively cheap compared to other AAC systems. To put things in perspective, devices from industry leaders such as Prentke Romich Company can cost nearly $8,000. Even when you factor in the cost of a new $500 iPad, Speak for Yourself is the much cheaper option. Unfortunately for Maya, it might not be around for much longer, thanks to a lawsuit filed by Prentke Romich and its partner Semantic Compaction Systems over patent infringement.

According to the lawsuit, Speak for Yourself infringed on “patented technology for dynamic keyboards and methods for dynamically redefining keys on a keyboard in the context of Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) systems,” based on a patent issued in 1995 — 15 years before the release of the first iPad.

“There’s a larger issue here,” says Nieder, a former middle school science teacher who — aside from some consulting work — now takes care of Maya full-time with the help of her husband David. “It’s not just about her. There are so many other people that this would be a good solution for and it’s frustrating to think about it disappearing.”

(MORE: Facebook Files Patent Countersuit Against Yahoo)

She vented about the situation on Uncommon Sense, a blog she started back in 2007 to keep friends and family up-to-date on her pregnancy. Many people, including myself, discovered her story through a link on Slashdot, a popular tech news aggregator, where it inspired 180 comments.

If you want to know why Nieder’s story has struck such a nerve in the tech community, all you need to do is take a look at recent headlines. In February, Honeywell sued start-up Nest, a press-darling who makes iPod-style thermostats, for violating seven of its patents. When Google bought Motorola in August for $12.5 billion, it was initially assumed to be mainly for the company’s huge stockpile of patents. Apple has sued both Motorola and Samsung over its intuitive slide-to-unlock feature, which lets people unlock their phones by sliding their finger across the screen.

One of the Slashdot commenters summed up the sentiments of many techies when he wrote the following under Nieder’s story:

The problem is our entire system is designed to let the rich “run out the clock” as it were, letting them drag s**t out for years and years because they know that while they can afford to have their own legal team on retainer the people they are crushing simply can’t.

Companies that spend considerable amounts of money on research and development, however, might think otherwise. Jo Donofrio, vice president of marketing for Prentke Romich defended the joint lawsuit against Speak for Yourself in a statement to TIME:

We are limited in what we can say while this situation is in litigation. But there’s a reason patents are in place, to protect decades of hard work and research that go into our devices. To take someone’s life work and market it as your own is simply wrong. It’s similar to scanning the pages of a book that took an author many years to research and write, putting it on the web and selling it as your own. There are many vocabulary apps in the market, some of which have been available for several years. The lawsuit only addresses one specific app, which we believe infringes on the intellectual property developed by [Semantic Compaction Systems].

(MORE: Why Are Parents Less Likely to Take Little Girls Outside to Play?)

Prentke Romich and Semantic Compaction Systems are doing what almost any other technology company in their shoes would do — which, to many observers, is the problem. The fact is, neither company has ever released an iPad app. Maya has difficulty holding their AAC devices, which are far heavier than the iPad. Other apps the Nieder family have tried are either too simple for Maya’s growing vocabulary or too complex for a girl who can’t read yet.

Nieder, for her part, is careful not to paint Prentke Romich as the villain.

“I feel bad saying anything, because they’re a great company and they’ve done great things for so many people,” she says. “I just want everyone to be able to able to do what they’re doing. I want Prentke Romich to continue to be successful with their devices and I want Speak for Yourself to be able to leave the app the way it is. They’re both fulfilling the needs of people who really need it.”

Prentke Romich and Semantic might be in the right — that’s up to the courts to decide. What this case has done is remind people that patent litigation, an issue that seems so dry and technical, has very real implications in the real world.

Losing slide-to-unlock? Annoying, yes, but it isn’t going to change your life. The advent of the iPad, however, has opened up a lot of older companies — including those that cater to people with special needs — to competition unlike any they have ever seen. Stanford engineer Sohan Dharmaraja is developing tablet typing software for the visually impaired that could replace clunky braille writers that cost as much as $6,000.

Lawsuits like the one against Speak for Yourself are inevitable when established companies who have been filing patents for decades suddenly come up against something as inexpensive and open as tablet computers. Whether or not such lawsuits are justified, the end result might be fewer options for the people who need the technology most.

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