A few months ago, I wrote about the legal fight going on between the innovators of Speak for Yourself, a augmentative speech app for the iPad, and the Prentke Romich Company and Semantic (“The Iceman Cometh, with his Legal Team”). I quickly described the situation at the time like this:
Okay, let’s wander into the weeds for just a moment. Last year an AAC app called Speak for Yourself was released that got the attention of a lot of us because of its use of the LAMP (language acquisition motor planning) concept. This focuses on a core vocabulary using consistent motor patterns that do not change. It is the basis of successful language systems like MinSpeak, licensed by the intellectual property company Semantic Compaction Systems for use in devices produced by the Prentke Romich Company, under the brand name Unity. It is these two affiliated companies, Semantic Compaction and PRC, that are attempting to sue the aforementioned pants off the developers of Speak for Yourself.
Well, things have changed a bit. Despite the fact that the parties have yet to have their day in court, Apple has pulled Speak for Yourself from the iTunes App Store. (PRC released a statement that begins with “Last week Prentke Romich Company (PRC) learned that Apple removed a language assistance app from its iTunes® store pending the outcome of a patent infringement lawsuit filed against the company that developed the iPad® app…”, but a careful read of the legal documents shows that Apple made this move at their request. Weasel words. Gotta love ‘em.) If you don’t already have Speak for Yourself on your iPad, you are out of luck, at least for the time being. If you do, you won’t be able to receive updates or remote fixes, and when Apple upgrades the operating system for the iPad later this year, there’s no guarantee the app will still work at all.
This is obviously a concern for users who are using the iPad and Speak for Yourself as their primary mode of verbal communication. Including, as of this summer, my daughter Schuyler.
There has been a great deal written about this situation. If you’re interested, the first, best place to go is this blog post by Dana Nieder, “The Silencing of Maya”. Dana has been the go-to person on this story, and she’s compiled a comprehensive list of links to the story as well. If you want to know more about this, that’s where you should go.
Now for my take on this, for whatever it might be worth.
There has been a great deal of discussion as to the validity of PRC’s claims against Speak for Yourself, and in a sense, it makes sense for everyone, particularly PRC and Apple, to let a court of law settle those claims. In a very real sense, however, that outcome is ultimately of limited relevance. As things stand right now, everyone loses.
Speak for Yourself loses because their product and their company dies if no one can buy it. Their clients obviously lose a tool that works, and that is very much not a small thing. Apple probably doesn’t lose, to be honest. We tend to think of the iPad as a major component in the disability world, but it’s easy to forget that the opposite probably doesn’t hold true. Apple probably sells more iPads in countries that don’t even have electricity than they do to users with disabilities. Our poor opinion of their business practices isn’t keeping Apple executives up late at night.
But most of all, PRC loses. They can win this court case, they can squash Speak for Yourself and get everything they seek in this situation, but the fact remains that with every story that runs in Time and on CNN and the Huffington Post, they are introduced to thousands of people who know nothing about their good work or their mission statement or their hundreds of dedicated professional employees. No, PRC is being introduced to thousands of people who will now and forever more know them only as “the big corporation that screwed over that poor cute little disabled girl”. That’s the kind of thing that leaves a mark. We can (and will) continue to argue about how accurate that public perception may be, but it’s irrelevant.
It’s irrelevant, and I suspect PRC knows it. I think they might have painted themselves into a corner, trapped by their own poor PR decisions, and they don’t know how to get out of it.
There is a way out, for everyone. The parties involved can take a step back and consider how they might come together and join forces. Under the auspices of PRC and the community of Unity users, Speak for Yourself and its developers would discover a credibility and a world of users that they would be unlikely to achieve on their own. PRC would finally be able to repair some of the public relations damage they’ve sustained and would grow their family. They would solve the very real technical problems involved with breaking into the consumer electronics market without a great deal of development skill. That’s no small consideration for PRC; frankly, their early efforts with iPad app programming has bordered on embarrassing. On their own, I don’t think PRC could release a solid MinSpeak app any time soon even if they wanted to. And perhaps most of all, PRC would benefit from a kind of evolution of their language system. One of the things I’ve been hearing expressed quietly here and there, and it’s something I agree with, is that in its use of a single representative symbol configuration, Speak for Yourself probably represents an improvement on Unity. PRC has a chance to benefit here, if they can work out a collaboration or even a merger with Speak for Yourself.
Will this happen? Frankly, I doubt it. Speak for Yourself’s team seems committed to fighting this fight, and rightly so, and PRC is showing no sign of backing down. But if all the parties involved could just get together in the same room for a Day Without Lawyers, this whole horrible state of affairs might just have an ending that doesn’t leave anyone feeling taken advantage of. Kids like Maya and Schuyler least of all.