David A. Wheeler's Blog

Mon, 26 Mar 2012

Software patents may silence little girl

Software patents are hurting the world, but the damage they do is often hard to explain and see.

But Dana Nieder’s post “Goliath v. David, AAC style” has put a face on the invisible scourge of software patents. As she puts it, a software patent has put her “daughter’s voice on the line. Literally. My daughter, Maya, will turn four in May and she can’t speak.” After many tries, the parents found a solution: A simple iPad application called “Speak for Yourself” that implements “augmentative and alternative communication” (AAC). Dana Nieder said, “My kid is learning how to ‘talk.’ It’s breathtaking.”

But now Speak for Yourself is being sued by a big company, Semantic Compaction Systems and Prentke Romich Company (SCS/PRC), who claims that the smaller Speak for Yourself is infringing SCS/PRC’s patents. If SCS/PRC wins their case, the likely outcome is that these small apps will completely disappear, eliminating the voice of countless children. The reason is simple: Money. SCS/PRC can make $9,000 by selling their one of their devices, so they have every incentive to eliminate software applications that cost only a few hundred dollars. Maya cannot even use the $9,000 device, and even if she could, it would be an incredible hardship on a Bronx family with income from a single 6th grade math teacher. In short, if SCS/PRC wins, they will take away the voice of this little girl, who is not yet even four, as well as countless others.

I took a quick look at the complaint, Semantic Compaction Systems, Inc. and Prentke Romich Company, v. Speak for Yourself LLC; Renee Collender, an individual; and Heidi Lostracco, an individual, and it is horrifying at several levels. Point 16 says that the key “invention” is this misleadingly complicated paragraph: “A dynamic keyboard includes a plurality of keys, each with an associated symbol, which are dynamically redefinable to provide access to higher level keyboards. Based on sequenced symbols of keys sequentially activated, certain dynamic categories and subcategories can be accessed and keys corresponding thereto dynamically redefined. Dynamically redefined keys can include embellished symbols and/or newly displayed symbols. These dynamically redefined keys can then provide the user with the ability to easily access both core and fringe vocabulary words in a speech synthesis system.”

Strip away the gobbledygook, and this is a patent for using pictures as menus and sub-menus. This is breathtakingly obvious, and was obvious long before this was patented. Indeed, it would have been obvious to most non-computer people. But this is the problem with many software patents; once software patents were allowed (for many years they were not, and they are still not allowed in many countries), it’s hard to figure out where to end.

One slight hope is that there is finally some effort to curb the worst abuses of the patent system. The Supreme Court decided on March 20, 2012, in Mayo v. Prometheus, that a patent must do more than simply state some law of nature and add the words “apply it.” This was a unanimous decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, remarkable and unusual in itself. You would think this would be obvious, but believe it or not, the lower court actually thought this was fine. We’ve gone through years where just about anything can be patented. By allowing software patents and business patents, the patent and trade office has become swamped with patent applications, often for obvious or already-implemented ideas. Other countries do not allow such abuse, by simply not allowing these kinds of patents in the first place, giving them time to review the rest. See my discussion about software patents for more.

My hope is that these patents are struck down, so that this 3-year-old girl will be allowed to keep her voice. Even better, let’s strike down all the software patents; that would give voice to millions.

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