Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Et tu, Google Play?

Another Briefing in the Continuing Saga of PRC/SCS vs. Speak for Yourself

If you’re new to this story, let me get you up to speed:  In March, I wrote about a lawsuit that posed a threat to my daughter’s voice.  Maya, who is four years old and unable to speak, uses an app called Speak for Yourself (SfY) to communicate, and the creators of SfY were being sued for patent infringement by Prentke Romich Company (PRC) and Semantic Compaction Systems (SCS), two much larger companies that make designated communication devices (not iPad apps).  You can read the original post here.  Maya’s voice, and the voices of all of the other users of Speak for Yourself, was being threatened in a very real, serious way.  In June, that threat was heightened when PRC/SCS requested that Apple remove the Speak for Yourself app from the iTunes store, and Apple complied with that request (despite the fact that PRC/SCS never asked the court for an injunction to halt the sales of the app—a move that would have allowed for due process and the decision of an impartial judge).  I wrote about the take-down and its potentially grave implications for Maya and the other users of the app, which can be seen here.

At the time of the initial lawsuit, I was shaken.  I worried about what would happen to the app that my daughter was growing quickly reliant on as her primary means of communicating. 

At the time of the removal from the iTunes App Store, I was re-shaken---like, to an earthquake level of shaken-ness.  In a panic, really.  By June,  Maya clearly identified the app as her voice.  If I told her that I didn’t understand what she was trying to tell me, she would rush to the talker, turn it on, and use the app to tell me what she wanted.  Immediately after finding out it was out of the iTunes store, I literally jogged across the apartment to our back-up iPad to check on the app and disable our wireless connection.  I thought about the confusion (rapidly following by anger) that Maya would experience if she turned on the talker one day and the app wouldn’t work. And I cried.

After writing about the removal of the app from the iTunes store, I received a lot of comments and emails---some from within the special needs community, some from other AAC users/therapists, and many from within the tech community.  One of the refrains that I heard from the tech community was negativity about Apple’s total control of their devices---once something is out of the iTunes store, there’s no way to buy it for an iPad.  “You wouldn’t have this problem if the developers had designed the app for Android,” I heard.  And, apparently, the Speak for Yourself team heard the same thing. 

And so, two weeks ago, Speak for Yourself released a version of the app for Android devices. It went up in Google Play, which (as I understand it) is kind of the big, go-to Android marketplace.   While we are still using our iPad copy of the app (due to the availability of a better case for the iPad and a keyguard, which is a necessity for Maya), the presence of the app on Google Play was reassuring---if the iOS6 update this fall messed up our iPad app, we would at least have an option to fall back on (not an ideal option, but an option).  We had a safety net. 

A few days ago, Google Play removed the app from their store, citing the court proceedings.

By now it seems that I’ve lost the ability to be shaken.  I’m not panicked or outraged or up in arms, I’m tired and numb.  I’m disappointed . . . in both the plantiffs in this case, who appear to be continuing their efforts to keep this app off the market and therefore out of the hands of nonverbal people who need it, and in the marketplaces who are so quick to pull the take-down trigger, despite the fact that there are no court orders to do so, and no infringement has been proven.  Considering the fact that (as I understand it) the majority of patent cases are resolved with some sort of monetary arrangement, I don’t understand why the app needs to be pulled during the litigation. 

With an Android app there are multiple marketplaces (besides Google Play) where the app can be offered for sale.  However, logic would dictate that if the app appeared in a new store tomorrow, that store would soon get the same take-down request from PRC/SCS.  And past experience would imply that these stores will likely comply with that request, despite the whole innocent-until-proven-guilty philosophy that I’m used to hearing about.  I guess when money and legal things are involved the modus operandi is to err on the side of being overly cautious.  I get it, I guess, but this isn’t an alleged knock-off of Angry Birds, it’s a communication system for people who need it. 

The Speak for Yourself team is able to keep the app available by selling the Android version directly through their website.  It is up there now, and I would imagine it will remain there unless an actual court order requires it to be taken down. 

As for Maya, she will continue to use the iPad (with its case and keyguard), which she knows and loves and is able to use independently, for as long as possible.  Her vocabulary continues to grow rapidly, and she delights us with her cleverness and humor.

As for me, I remain hopeful that after this case is resolved the app will be reinstated in the various marketplaces that felt pressured to take it down during the litigation.  I continue to share the news of this case not only because of the effect that it has on my family, but because of the larger implications for any families who use an AAC app to communicate.


Meghan Sarah Martin said...

How are other apps, like Proloquo2Go, which is very similar to SFY, still around? Isn't the case based on the fact that SFY is too similar to PRC's product? What is so different about SFY that other apps don't have? I'm just curious because we just started using Proloquo2Go and it's entirely possible something like this could happen again. THX.

Anonymous said...

Proloquo2Go and many of the other communication apps have been around for a long time and the only similarities to PRC's products is that they speak when a button is pushed. Proloquo2Go has been around since 2009.
When it first came out, SFY was using PRC's symbol set (this has since changed.) The way that it works is quite similar to the Unity language that Semantic developed and licenses to PRC - that is the difference between SFY and the other communication apps in the marketplace.

This is from the Prentke Romich website FAQs about the lawsuit:

Is it true that the infringement suit will remove all AAC apps from the market?

No. 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 infringes on the intellectual property developed by SCS.

Why is SCS suing? How are the app developers infringing?

The Unity system that powers our language solutions is the result of the long commitment and hard work of Bruce Baker and his company, Semantic Compaction Systems, which licenses the system to PRC. Our patent attorneys determined that there are multiple instances of infringement on the Unity patents. Bruce has spent more than 25 years and millions of dollars to create and refine this software, resulting in life-changing technology that has given a voice to thousands of individuals with profound disabilities. To take someone’s life work and market it as your own is simply wrong.

Dana said...


There you have the response of PRC :) I, for one, disagree with most of it, but there it is-lol.

1. SFY was using PRC's symbol set(Pixons) initially on the main page, and it is my understanding that they had a license to do this (which is why the symbol set is not part of the lawsuit--I think that they had permission). Interestingly, at the ISAAC conference I spoke with the designers of another group of AAC apps and found out that over the next few months they will be switching to using Pixons due to a new contract with SCS (or PRC? I'm not sure where you would license the symbols from). Anyway, this whole point is moot.

2. As I understand it, one of the patents in question has to do with the keyboard system. It's my understanding that this patent could actually apply to many other apps that are on the market. Granted, patents are difficult to interpret (which is why the opinions of people on the internet about whether the infringement is occurring are kind of ridiculous and the court is clearly the best qualified to sort this out)---but that's the way that I've read it.

3. I can't tell you what is so different about SFY that the other apps don't do. I've had some hands-on time with PRC devices, and I don't see the similarities. I mean, I see some similarities (like they both use the Fitzgerald color coding key) but those similarities are shared by other apps as well, and I don't think that they are part of the lawsuit anyway. So, honestly, I don't know.

I hope P2G works out well for you guys---their new Josh & Ella voices are really great!

Anonymous said...

I don't think it is entirely clear that the Pixons symbol sets were not included. They are part of the Semantic intellectual property.
The lawsuit says this:

3. In addition, Semantic is the owner of several registered trademarks, including but
not limited to Minspeak~ and Pixons~, as well as copyrights relating to the technology
associated with the Semantic Patents.
14. PRC is the exclusive licensee of the Semantic Patents and other Semantic
intellectual property in respect to products and services relating to, inter alia, AAC
communication, pursuant to an exclusive license agreement dated October 1, 2006 (the "License
Agreement"). A true and correct copy of the License Agreement is attached hereto as Exhibit"C." Specifically, the License Agreement relates to "products (including hardware, software,
printed materials, and related items) designed to facilitate the communications of non-speaking


SFY doesn't look as much like PRC's Unity if you only look at the smaller button Unity sets or the one hit and even 2 hit sets. It's more like it when you look at the larger Unity sets like was on Pathfinder devices or is on the 84 and higher number of button sets.

How the sequence of buttons work is the biggest difference comparing SFY and other communication apps. Pressing APPLE takes you to words related to eating, food, eating verbs. Two touches of the same button gives a different choice than one touch. That is the keyboard patent that the lawsuit is about.
No other apps are doing that same thing with sequences of touches.

Dana said...


I think when this case actually goes to trial (if it does) we will see that the legality of using the Pixons is not in question. Also, it would have been a pretty silly move to steal a symbol set (any symbol set) in making an app. I simply don't think that's in question.

I have looked at the larger Unity sets, and I checked out your link, and I don't see the similarity---well, beyond the fact that they are both screens full of square image buttons. (Much like Proloquo2Go, TouchChat, TapSpeak, and many other AAC apps.)

"How the sequence buttons work is the biggest difference comparing SFY and other communication apps." Well, not really. SFY is much closer to P2G, in my opinion. You tap something on the main screen to open a category (like, tap "eat" to get to the food words). Once in the category screen, you pick the word that you want to say (like "waffle). There is no sequencing---no multi-meaning keys. If you want to say "waffle" you go into "eat" and then tap "waffle." I don't see how this is different than most other apps.

The essence of PRC's (brilliant) symbol language, as I understand it, is symbols that have multiple meanings. That simply isn't how SFY works (and that's precisely why it was a more appropriate fit for my young child).

They are both beautiful systems, and I'm glad that they both exist for the users who need them. But, as I see it, they are hugely different.

Anonymous said...

I don't think they meant to steal use of the Pixon/Unity symbol set. I think they probably had limited rights to use it for teaching type purposes and misinterpreted what rights they had.
We will disagree about SFY using sequencing - having used Unitair lot, it is clear in my mind that it is. And seeing a static page of the Unity 84 set does not give a good feeling for how it works. Just sitting there, it just looks like a page of buttons, but those buttons work in a very different way than apps like Proloquo2Go.

To say 'eat fruit' in both Unity and SFY requires 2 hits. The first hit opens the page that includes eating verbs and foods. When they were using Unity Pixons, the EAT button on SFY was the double meaning Unity button with a symbol for the action of eating and the nouns for eating. Changing to the Smarty Symbol with just EAT doesn't change that.

So if you want to say "eat fruit' using either SFY or a device using Unity, the key sequence is to push the EAT button, then press EAT on the page that opens up. To get FRUIT, you press the EAT button again and when the page opens up, you choose FRUIT.
Look at the message bar and you will see the pictures for those 2 sequences up there:
the EAT picture for Eat, followed by the EAT picture next to the FRUIT picture for fruit.
Each time you press something, after making a choice, the program goes automatically back to the front starting page.
Those things don't happen in other apps, but do happen in the same way in Unity devices.

I'm glad to hear that you found something your daughter can use and wish you continued luck with it.

Dana said...

I won't debate the technical stuff anymore, because clearly you see it one way and I clearly see it a different way . . . and neither one matters one bit. We all will wait to see how the judge sees it, as that's the only opinion that will actually matter.

"I'm glad to hear that you found something your daughter can use and wish you continued luck with it."

Thanks! Me too. I can't express how wonderful it is to hear her.

Special Apps, Special Kids said...

To counter a previous comment, "two touches of the same button gives a different choice than one touch"

Not true of SFY. Buttons are either one touch or two touch in the app. You cannot touch one button to say a word, but then tap that same button twice to get it to say a different word. A button will only speak with a first touch if it is one of the yellow core words. You can only use one touch for these buttons- tap them again and they will simply repeat the same word again. To say a word on a non-core button, touch the main icon it is located under,then touch the word you want to say on the second screen, then press the sentence bar to speak.

To counter the comment:

"To say 'eat fruit' in both Unity and SFY requires 2 hits. The first hit opens the page that includes eating verbs and foods. When they were using Unity Pixons, the EAT button on SFY was the double meaning Unity button with a symbol for the action of eating and the nouns for eating. Changing to the Smarty Symbol with just EAT doesn't change that."

This is not true.

Actually 5 taps are required to say "eat fruit" in SFY. The "Eat" icon must be tapped on the main screen, which opens up a new screen (like most other AAC apps!). On this new screen the user must tap the word "Eat" to send it to the sentence strip. Then the "eat" icon can be touched again, and then "Fruit" can be touched and sent to the sentence strip. Then tap the sentence strip to say "eat fruit" aloud. There are some single buttons that will speak automatically when you touch them without opening a new screen of buttons. (the yellow buttons, and also yes/no)

I am very disheartened by PRC's actions. If they were truly concerned with "giving everyone a voice" , this lawsuit would not be happening. At the very least, they would allow the courts to decide, without pulling an app from the App Store that gives people a voice. I find it odd that people have been asking PRC to enter the app market for a very long time to no avail, until suddenly someone comes along and frankly in my opinion, does it better- and now they have their panties in a bunch.

The pixon symbols are no longer being used, so that's really a moot point. I took a look at the video of the new PRC app on their website and see two very different apps, other than the fact that both have buttons you press to talk and have a large panel of smaller buttons that do not change in size, instead of variable button sizes. There are many AAC apps- which I dare not name for fear of PRC targeting other valuable AAC apps- where you could set up a screen of tiny buttons of this size and put rows of new buttons behind the top screen of buttons. I'm not sure how PRC can assert that is unique to their technology.

The only similarity I see is how they are both good for motor planning, but the way in which this is achieved is different according to the videos and screenshots of PRC's app- In SFY when tapping an item on the first screen, the word for that item is in the same position so you don't have to scan the second screen to find it, it becomes automatic. With their app, it appears that if you want to say eat, you tap on eat, a second screen is brought up, and then eat is in an entirely new location, not where you just tapped on the initial screen (if there is someone who has used PRC's AAC app, please correct me if I am wrong)

Anyhow, the truth is there is room for BOTH apps as they have different functions and features for different users. Also important to note- at the time PRC started this lawsuit, they didn't even have an app out in the App Store to compare to. Clearly, for little girls like Maya (and my own son), Speak For Yourself has filled a need that the other products could not. If this were an issue of a "counterfeit" app where someone took the coding for an app line by line and slapped their own name on it, you'd hear me singing a different tune.

Dana said...

Special Apps, Special Kids---thanks for taking the time to chime in here with such a thorough answer as to the similarites and differences between SFY and PRC's devices/app.

"Anyhow, the truth is there is room for BOTH apps as they have different functions and features for different users."

I couldn't agree more.

Carl said...

My son is 5, has autism, and is non verbal. We don't have the same situation, but in a world of normal kids vs different kids, my family and your family can relate to a degree.

I've seen Unity and SfY. They are very similar (you can say like my son and your daughter) but they are also very different (just like my son and your daughter). The unity software seems to be working well for my son, so much that I have spent hours making Proloquo2go look/work like a Vantage Lite. This was only possible once proloquo had it's 2.0 update.
When I first heard of SfY, I was against the app thinking that the concept was stolen from the makers of unity. As you've stated before though, it doesn't matter what you, I, or anyone else thinks. It's all up to the judge. After many nights making Proloquo2go mimic unity software, I've always had your situation in the back of my mind. They lengths we'd go as parents to be able to communicate to our child. And the other day my son drooled (is that how you spell that) on the speaker of the iPad and the sound got distorted. Again, as I started thinking "what if this iPad breaks?" I was also thinking "what if Maya's iPad breaks." There's a great joy that fills me when my son can say "I want to play Toca Train", I can barely remember that days when it was a random guess as to what he wanted.
I feel your fear of losing that bridge of communication with your child.

I don't believe one app is better than another. I think best app/device is the one that allows your child to communicate with you.

I also have a lot of respect for you in keeping up with all the advances in technology, for example the new PRC app that came out. When you first wrote/blogged about it, I felt like you and I were the only two people that knew about it.

From one parent to another, best wishes. Some parents take the simple things like the chatty kid for granted. Other parents have to fight for it.

-Carl Marlowe

Anonymous said...

Nice touch commenting as anonymous, you coward... As for patents - there shouldn't be any software patents, plain and simple. This whole story is the result of overly agressive IP laws. There will be more, just like this, unfortunately.

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