Patently Ridiculous: Apple’s Ugly Legal Tactics

A few weeks, maybe an entire month has passed since I last blasted Apple Computer on this blog. In the time that has passed, I have spent some time playing with a Macintosh “Mini” and familiarizing myself with VoiceOver, the screen reader that comes built into OSX. I will admit publicly that, where VoiceOver works, it does a pretty good job. VoiceOver doesn’t have the rich feature set of programs like JAWS or Window-Eyes and, frankly, I think Safari doesn’t reach the web browsing standard set by IE and Firefox but, overall, the system does a decent job in the fairly rare programs with which it works.

This morning, I had planned not to write a Blind Confidential entry. My wrists and hands feel sore from typing too much over the past few days and I thought I should take a rest. Then, while reading my emails from Blind News, I came across the article, “Apple files for audio navigation patent,” originally published in Ars Technica Online, a web rag that I had not heard of before.

In Blind Confidential, I have written a lot about my personal history. To recap a piece of my past apropos to today’s item, back around 1990, I co-founded an organization called “League for Programming Freedom” with Richard Stallman and some others who felt that IP law had moved from its intended purpose of promoting the useful arts into a realm where it became less a tool of protecting one’s invention to one used to create roadblocks for competition. If you search the Internet, you can probably still find an article I wrote back then called “Patently Absurd” that ran in the Boston Business Journal if I remember correctly.

For those of you interested in some of the core theory beneath why software patents should not exist, you should consider the fact that mathematical discoveries cannot receive patent protection. The Supreme Court ruled against IBM and Benoit Mandelbrot when they tried to patent fractal geometry. The Supremes ruled that all mathematics already exist in nature and are, therefore, discovered and not invented. Thus, patents do not apply to mathematical discoveries as they are reserved for inventions and not discoveries. As most students of computer science can explain to you, any computer algorithm can be expressed using the lambda calculus (the theory upon which the Lisp programming language is based). Hence, software is not actually invented but rather represents a discovery of a different functional expression in the calculus. On top of the theoretical issues, there remain many practical reasons why software patents do more harm than good but, as that is not my topic this morning, I recommend readers search the Internet for articles by Richard Stallman, Pamela Samuelson and others who have studied this problem in greater detail.

Upon reading the headline, I assumed that Apple had invented some new type of GPS or other “way finding” technology that could add to the tools one can use to navigate their car, while walking, boating or hiking. In fact, Apple has filed for a patent for a, “audio user interface that assists the user of a portable device,” navigate through the devices command set.

“The patent, which was originally filed on November 4, 2004 and released to the public today, describes an audio feedback system where the “device” not only voices the user’s input commands (play selection, next selection, previous selection, stop selection) but also sounds out the name of the track that has been selected. The song names would be generated from the ID3 tags attached to each .MP3 or .AAC file, and sounded out using a “text-to-speech conversion engine.” Does anyone other than me feel that we’ve already seen this invention?

While patent attorneys hone their skills at finding ways to write applications that worm their way through published prior art to find a way that the under funded and under staffed USPTO will find it fit to grant them a monopoly on their invention. The article continues, “the main question that arises whenever new technology patents like this bubble to the surface is: has there been any prior art? Often, the answer to that is a matter of opinion. There have certainly been audio navigation interfaces before: any user of software for the blind knows that. But have any of these interfaces automatically generated song titles on a portable music player? That seems to be the core of this particular patent.”

As I write this item, I have my PAC Mate and my iPAQ running MSP beside me. Does Pocket JAWS or Mobile Speak Pocket read me the names of the track in Windows Media Player, Pocket Player and probably a few other players I haven’t installed. Absolutely. They even do me the favor of not telling me the track name if I don’t want to hear it. I plead ignorance about the BrailleNote, the MPower (does the “m” really stand for Mosen?), the BrailleSense, the Book Note and any of the other devices designed specifically for us blinks. I haven’t tried using any of the “after market” speech programs that people have made available for the iPod and some other portable devices but, I’ll take a wild stab in the dark and make the assumption that they too can tell you what you have chosen to listen to.

“Apple is certainly interested in enhancing their iPod line as much as possible in order to hold on to their dominant position in the market. Over the years the company has experimented with different colors, added photo viewing, and most recently video. While an audio navigation system may not seem like much, it’s one more little extra to convince potential customers not to go with cheaper alternatives.” Thus, Apple seems to say that, although Benjamin Franklin, who started the USPTO and the Congress that first funded it, had been wrong when they suggested its purpose was to promote innovation and invention in the sciences and useful arts.

Apple has done absolutely nothing innovative with this invention. Lots of programs can look into a media file (Windows Media, Real Player, WinAmp, Pocket Player and others come to mind) and, through a very well documented API, pull out the track name. Self voicing user interfaces have existed for many generations of the rapidly emerging world of technology, both in and out of the blindness market. Screen readers like Pocket JAWS and MSP can read this information, all of the navigation commands and do profoundly more with their synthesized speech interfaces. I would assume that the self-voicing products like BrailleNote and its cousins can do the same. Apple has invented nothing but will still try to stifle progress and choice for people with vision impairments and others who would enjoy a talking media player.

I do not know the patent status of most products in the AT industry but I do know there seems to be a mountain of what appears to be published prior art. The USPTO can also refuse a patent if it demonstrates a fairly obvious concept. Between everything that exists in the world of products for blinks plus the fact that Apple’s “invention” does nothing more than look in a well documented spot in a file for a track name shows that other inventions have precedence and the single possible enhancement that Apple included is both obvious and has demonstrated prior art in every software media player on the market.

In my first article to feature Apple, I discussed how simple it would be for them to put a talking interface onto an iPod. Now, they seem to have actually also been thinking of such a concept, for some reason have been holding it back from market and, now, in their typically arrogant manner, Apple is acting like they invented an idea so obvious that people at the USPTO should be laughing loudly at their application.

So, Apple seems to have taken a step forward in making their products more accessible and is trying, through possible litigation to stifle innovation. They did this in their lawsuit trying to protect their user interface in Apple v. Microsoft and, quite fortunately for the entire computing world, they lost that case. Now, their legal department has reared its ugly head once again to try to derail competitors from adding the one feature that will truly benefit our community.

What should we do?

I propose that the community of people with vision impairments, friends who support our goals, advocacy organizations and AT companies temporarily put aside our counter-productive sectarianism and competitive urges and work together to defeat this patent application and to let Apple know that, as a community, we will not sit back and let their lawyers poop on us and work to limit the potential of increased accessibility in the huge media player market.

What actions can we take?

While I oppose software patents on principle, I recommend, as a protection to our community, that all AT companies and others who have done work with self-voicing interfaces to look through any patents they have in their files to determine if Apple, in VoiceOver or in this latest application, does anything to violate any item in any existing patent. If Apple wants to play legal games to prevent the spread of self-voicing technologies on media players, our team must also resort to the “nuclear option” and use any tools in our arsenal to stop Apple from further hindering access and innovation.

Next, all advocacy organizations who claim to have the best interest of we blinks in mind should publish open letters in their various publications calling for Apple to either withdraw their patent application or, if they find a patent examiner who has hit the pipe often enough to actually see something inventive in their application, to place the patent into the public domain or to contribute it to a collection of advocacy organizations who can manage its future.

As individuals, I think someone should start an online petition like the one that seems to have succeeded in forcing Google to take the blindness community seriously. I also suggest that my fellow blind bloggers and members of technology related mailing lists suggest that our readers write directly to Apple to express disgust with their legal manipulation of our futures. Finally, I suggest that blind people boycott Apple products until they start behaving like good neighbors in the community of technology that people with vision impairments can use to better enjoy their lives.

This feels like déjà vu all over again. I last called for an Apple boycott during their user interface copyright feud with Microsoft. I was the guy who purchased the thousands of day-glo stickers that depicted a nineteenth century prostitute with the slogan, “Only a whore charges for a look and feel! Boycott Lotus and Apple” and then, during a COMDEX, rallied a team of volunteers who paid homeless people all over Vegas to slap the stickers on everything they saw. I had also been the person who recommended the old “Fanged Apple” parody of the Apple logo that appeared with the slogan, “Keep Your Lawyers Off My Computer,” that the LPF put on buttons, coffee mugs, posters and all sorts of items that went all around the world. On a more serious note, I did the lion’s share of organizing the signatories to the friend of the court briefs filed by legendary computer scientists (including Stallman, Rod Brooks, Marvin Minsky, Geoffrey Knuth, Guy Steele, Bob Boyer, John McCarthy and so many others) in Apple v. Microsoft and Lotus v. Borland where, ultimately, user interface copyright was struck down.

All of that occurred a long time ago. Since then, I’ve found lots of fault with Apple’s entirely post 508 attempt at making the Macintosh accessible to people with vision impairments. After playing around a bit with the Mini and VoiceOver, I thought that Apple and I might reach peace or at least a state of détente. No such luck, their lawyers, like the dragons who live in the sewers beneath Manhattan have resurfaced with a truly bold, in your face attack on potential improvements in accessibility to the entire range of media players on the market.

So, I’ll start reviving our old slogans:

Innovate Don’t Litigate!
Keep Your Lawyers off My Computer!
Stop Software Monopo Lies!
Boycott Apple!

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I'm an accessibility advocate working on issues involving technology and people with print impairment. I'm a stoner, crackpot, hacker and all around decent fellow. I blog at this site and occasionally contribute to Skepchick. I'm a skeptic, atheist, humanist and all around left wing sort. You can follow this blog in your favorite RSS reader, and you can also view my Twitter profile (@gonz_blinko) and follow me there.

3 thoughts on “Patently Ridiculous: Apple’s Ugly Legal Tactics”

  1. The BrailleNote mPower does, indeed, have the ability to tell you the title of the track you’re listening to. If it were labeled properly, I’d be ale to press a key conbination and hear “Track: Me and Julio Down By the schoolyard” for example. Just thought I’d let you know.

  2. Hahaha

    Come on, now again, you so called pc techs, at specialists what ever, still try to compare a wonderful product such as voice over to omething like jaws, or win eyes. don’t get me wrong buddy, I have two linux boxes, three macs, and two pc’s and Therefore I use most of the at out there. funny thing is my romeo rb25 is my primary printer for my mac desktop along with an a/b switch connecting them to my primary mac desktop and my mac server.

    Sadly you and that little guy j levinthaw or how ever you spell his name spew propaganda about the short commings of voice over. maybe its not to your standards but there are blind professionals that use it daily and connect to windows domains and use exchange, etc all with a mac. I’ve been using a mac since 94 back then I use outspoken back with all the so called blind community was bitching that it too was not accessible. I’ve been on the www in about 96 with outspoekn.

    and the safarie experience that you claim is not comparible to i.e or fire fox again can’t be compared so stop trying.

    I am sorry that you have this beef but I wish you would write nutrally instead of so harshly about a company who wrote in a full functioning great screeen reader for free.

    its kind of like, we got what we asked for but not what we wanted??

    is it not, didn’t we all want at to be afordable to the blind consumer, so we could pay for it ourselves but now that we have it, at 600 dollars or 129 dollars and an old mac just sitting around its now bs that apple has put together to not lose the 508 contracts. you got to be kidding me!

    Gabe Vega A+, Network+
    The BlindTechs Network

  3. I first learned about Apple’s TTS patent someplace besides this blog and just thought, ”Eh.”  Our patent system is horribly broken, and Apple’s abuse of it is pretty run of the mill.  No news here, please move along.

    With Chris picking up the story, I considered the matter from an AT perspective, and concluded:  “Kewl!  Apple is finally going to the make the iPod talk!  It’s about time!  Maybe they will get around to fixing iTunes now.”  But I was not about to get into it with Chris when he was on his soap box.

    That was naive.  Apparently, Apple’s only interest in this technology is to provide non-blinks a high-tech option for their Nike running shoes.  I am very disappointed.  Thirty dollars for a talking pedometer would have been sweet.

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