A German court has stayed Samsung’s patent lawsuit against Apple over the company’s implementation of certain accessibility features that speak out interface elements and text on screen for visually impaired iOS users. Found under the VoiceOver section in the Settings app, the feature has been widely adopted by the visually impaired users including popular music artist Stevie Wonder.
Samsung’s patent in question specifically deals with the process of “pushing a button and getting screen content, including icons and text read to you aloud,” which is fairly similar to what VoiceOver does. Apple questioned the legitimacy of this patent and asked for an invalidation, and based on the stay on the suit, it appears that the patent may indeed be invalidated.
Though the case has been stayed for now, it’s entirely possible that Samsung finds a way to assert this accessibility related patent against Apple, depriving German visually impaired users of iOS’ industry leading accessibility features.
One could of course argue that why aren’t accessibility related innovations considered the same as any other innovation that Apple has sued Samsung for. The obvious answer is ethics, but AllThingsD notes that this isn’t the only reason Samsung was foolish in this case:
Yes, this move by Samsung against Apple was a tactical one in a nasty battle in which billions of dollars are at stake. Yes, it’s just business. But it’s ill-conceived. Even leaving aside the ethics of asserting a patent against a feature designed to help the blind, this is unwise. It’s the PR equivalent of punching yourself in the face. Samsung has now identified itself as a company willing to accept the loss of accessibility for the vision-impaired as collateral damage in its battle with Apple. It has made a big public move to make it more difficult for the blind to use computers. That’s just foolish – more so, now that the judge presiding over the case has stayed the suit. Again, this is just business and battle, but there’s a PR war being fought here, as well. And Samsung is not doing itself any favors with poorly thought-out assaults like this one.
Florian Mueller over at FOSS Patents says:
Patent protection and enforcement can be justified in certain scenarios. For example, if there are two companies competing in the market for hearing aids, it’s generally legitimate for them to assert accessibility-related patents against each other. I would also support the idea of accessibility patent enforcement in cases of willful infringement, and if Samsung had only requested monetary compensation in this action, it would have made a much better choice than by trying to achieve, through the pursuit of an injunction, the deactivation or (more realistically) degradation of the voiceover functionality Apple provides to its German customers.
While the decision to take Apple to court over accessibility related issues was taken by Samsung for tactical reasons or just lack of foresight can certainly be debated, but I think we can all agree that this is obviously not the right move by Samsung.