A heartbreaking look at software patents

My friend and former colleague from SFLC, Dan Ravicher, wrote to me about this little girl who relies on an app to speak. The app is under threat for patent infringement and Apple has already removed it from the itunes store. This story has already got some press, but now the app has actually been removed from itunes, and the parents are worried that Apple will remotely update the device to remove it. What amazes me about this story is that it echoes some of my own feelings towards my pacemaker/defibrillator. It shows how real people are increasingly relying on technology that they have less and less control over for extremely important aspects of our lives. While malfunction of the app isn’t a concern for this family in the same way it is for medical devices like mine, they live in fear that one day their daughter’s voice will just stop working and there’s very little they can do about it. It’s another side of the software patent issues and lockdown that I really hadn’t considered before. Many thanks to Dan for his work with the Public Patent Foundation.

13 thoughts on “A heartbreaking look at software patents

  1. They probably do not have to worry about Apple remotely removing it. While they do have that ability to do so, they have never exercised that option. On the other hand if it was from Google they might have to worry. Google has that option and has exercised it numerous times.

      • Apple remove apps from the *store* sometimes for violating certain terms in the developer terms and conditions, but never remove them from customer’s devices.

        Apps are allowed to directly compete with Apple’s applications too – for example, a search for ‘camera’ on the app store returns over 7000 applications. There are many email clients too – even an official Gmail app from Google.

  2. This is really a sad story. I hate to sound like a FLOSS zealot, but I think this is exactly the reason why the Free Software movement is more than just readable code. In the end, it’s about control. And while most people probably don’t care to have control over their copy of MS Word, this story just shows how important it may become in corner cases.

    My mother suffers from ALS, and she now also depends on a machine to communicate. Manufacturers of speech generating devices are now under heavy pressure from new devices like tablets, so I can imagine how aggressively they try to hold these new competitors down. In the end, such highly expensive devices (which cost thousands of euros) cannot compete with cheap mainstream devices like tablets.

    In the end, we came to the same conclusion as the parents of said little girl: It’s not that these devices are expensive, it’s that they are simple not the best tools available. We bought an Dell Duo convertible, and I wrote a small application that perfectly matches my mother’s needs and abilities. Then I hooked up a free software speech synthesis engine, and there we were. Commercial solutions still provide better speech synthesis, but they suck in terms of usability.

    I think that assistive technology is, like education and science, one of the areas where free software can make a real difference. It’s about control, it’s about tailoring towards individual needs. I just hope that our community will be able to gain some momentum in this area.

    • Whether the app is free software or not is not the point here. If it infringes patents the patent holder can sue regardless of the license of the app.

      While your point is not entirely wrong it misses the issue here i.e that the patent system is just broken. In the US you can even sue people for *using* the patented technologies not just the ones that create, distribute or sell it.

  3. While this sounds like a sad story in reality it is even a good thing. Apple won’t remove the app remotely so the girl does not have to worry about that. OTOH it raises awareness about the broken patent situation and might contribute to it getting fixed one day.

    So not everything is black and white ;)

    • “Apple won’t remove the app remotely so the girl does not have to worry about that.”

      You are an authorized representative of Apple, with legal authority to make promises on behalf of Apple? What meaning does your “reassurance” have? Will you suffer any consequences whatsoever if it turns out your statement is false? Are you prepared to back that statement up with a guarantee to make the little girl whole? Maybe hire her a translator?

      If Apple will never excercise its power, then why on God’s earth do they need that power and why should they be allowed to rertain it?

      • “You are an authorized representative of Apple, with legal authority to make promises on behalf of Apple? ”

        No I am not.

        “What meaning does your “reassurance” have? Will you suffer any consequences whatsoever if it turns out your statement is false? Are you prepared to back that statement up with a guarantee to make the little girl whole? Maybe hire her a translator?”

        See above … oh and btw, what the hell is wrong with you? Calm down …

        “If Apple will never excercise its power, then why on God’s earth do they need that power and why should they be allowed to rertain it?”

        I based my statements based on prior behavior of Apple while there is indeed no guarantee that they will not change that in future … the likelihood of them doing so is rather low otherwise they would have done it in similar situations before. So I am just basing my argument on that rather then on FUD.

        As for “why should they be allowed to rertain it?” .. why are you asking me? I neither said that they should be able to do that nor do I have any influence on the decisions made by Apple.. You can ask Apple … I am sure there PR department will come up with a fancy answer that does not actually contain any arguments or they will outright ignore you.

        But asking me does not make much sense because I neither implemented that feature (I never worked for Apple) nor could I prevent it from getting implemented nor can I remove it (I would if I could).

  4. This is not a tough app to write. If this doesn’t get resolved, we could get a few people together and write an open source version of the app using only creative commons licensed media. In fact, I would imagine someone has already done that, you just need to find them.

    If not, let me know and maybe I can get a team at a hackathon to put a rough version together in a weekend. Seems like something the open source community would rally around.

    Dan

    • Again this is about patents not copyright. Unless you have a patent license a free app wouldn’t help here at all.

  5. So, the $189 question is, where did the SLP’s get their research from?

    Please make a detailed list, so we can ALL see “the evidence” and how they came to their conclusions.

    Did they pay for consultants to help? Were the consultants speech pathologists, design engineers, or parents?

    Finally, did they consult and PAY the augmented communicators for their advice and show us the data for the beta testing that was done.

    I’m sure the other AAC manufacturers — Proloquo2go, TapSpeak and others would pay big bucks to have access to this data and the AAC users who helped.

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