Earlier this year, I wrote a story about Maya, a four-year-old girl who used an app called Speak for Yourself to help her communicate with the outside world. Maya’s mother, Dana Nieder, preferred the app over more established augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) devices because it worked on an iPad, which was easier for Maya to handle, and it was cheaper — $299 plus the cost of an iPad, as opposed to bulkier devices that can cost up to $8,000.
The app is being threatened by a joint lawsuit from Prentke Romich Company (PRC) and Semantic Compaction Systems, which claim that Heidi LoStracco and Renee Collender — the two speech pathologists behind Speak for Yourself — infringed on over 100 of their software patents. LoStracco and Collender fought back, claiming in court that the lawsuit is baseless.
Now it seems that despite the fact that the lawsuit is still in court, Apple has pulled Speak for Yourself from the App Store. Nieder is obviously not very happy about the decision. While she already has the app on her iPad, she worries about the fact that Speak for Yourself can’t send out updates and that new iOS updates from Apple could interfere with how the app functions.
This story first gained traction on Slashdot because it featured an increasingly familiar storyline: an established technology company uses patent claims to sue a smaller upstart that’s utilizing disruptive technology — in this case, the relatively cheap and easy-to-use iPad. PRC doesn’t offer an iPad app; if you want to use its technology, you have to buy its hardware. This is what Nieder took issue with on her blog:
For us, this wasn’t an issue of an expensive device versus a “cheap” app. This was an issue of an ineffective device (for Maya) versus an app that she understood and embraced immediately. The only app, the only system, that she immediately adopted as her own way of communicating.
This app is her only voice.
I can’t speak to the merits of the lawsuit; the court will decide that. The issue of whether or not Apple should have pulled Speak for Yourself from the App Store before the case was decided is trickier. Obviously, Apple would rather be safe than sorry and remove a potentially problematic app instead of risking legal action. The problem, however, is that this isn’t some counterfeit version of Angry Birds. As Nieder puts it, “This app is not a game, it’s a necessary, irreplaceable voice for people with disabilities. Why would Apple decide to pull it so arbitrarily?”
As more developers create apps for people with illnesses and disabilities, conflicts like this will only become more common. Tablets and smartphones are accessible alternatives to big, bulky assistive devices built by companies that haven’t faced competition in years. Yes, companies should be able to protect their intellectual property, but when you or someone you love depend on an app, it can hard to be patient with the legal process.
“The fact that my daughter’s ability to speak is becoming a casualty of a patent battle between two businesses is beyond my comprehension,” writes Nieder, which nicely sums up what’s at stake here. Rapidly advancing technology is helping people with injuries and disabilities like never before; sadly, business and legal concerns have a knack for slowing things down.