Font Designed To Help Dyslexic Individuals Gets Legal Threat, Becomes More Open In Response

from the dyslexics-unite dept

Recently, we highlighted the tremendous difficulty that visually impaired people have encountered when it comes to intellectual property. The White House had initially endorsed, then stalled, an international effort to expand fair use rights to help visually impaired individuals get greater access to written works. We also highlighted how DRM was a threat to the visually impaired. However, it is not just large interests making life difficult for this class of readers. 

Thanks to TechnoMage, we learn that New Hampshire-based mobile app designer Abelardo Gonzalez had created a font that is easier for those with dyslexia to read books and websites, but it ended up facing some legal threats from a competing font designer. First off, we have a little background on the font.
The plight of dyslexic individuals served as inspiration to Abelardo Gonzalez, a New Hampshire-based mobile app designer, who devised a clever font to help dyslexics read digital text easier.

The font, dubbed "OpenDyslexic", employs a trick in which the bottoms of characters are weighted. Curiously some dyslexic individuals visual processing cortexes rotate images that look slender, making characters appear backwards or upside down. By making the bottom look "heavier" the font reportedly reduces this kind of visual "bug" in the brains of people with this disability.
Along with creating this font, Abelardo had released an app for iPhone and Android devices that allows those device owners to override the default font wherever it is used and replace it with this font. Other app developers had also started using it as an alternative font. Even e-reader makers Sony and Amazon have taken interest. Unfortunately, this kind of greater access is not something to celebrate if you are trying to market a more expensive font to the same demographic.
He relates that he was contacted by font designer Christian Boer (who sells an alternative font called dyslexie for $69 USD per "single-use" license) to "cease and desist" early during his process.

At the time he was charging a nominal fee and did reuse some bitstream-vera-sans characters as the basis for his font. Bitstream-vera-sans' license explicitly allows derivative fonts to be sold (free of fee to the bitstream font creators), however, Mr. Boer was claiming that the offense occurred due to the fact that Mr. Gonzalez had changed the (free) font in a similar way as he had. By all appearances the real issue was that Mr. Gonzalez was offering it for far cheaper than Mr. Boer.
In response to this threat, Abelardo released the font for free made some modifications to the font, thus allowing greater access to the public, Abelardo had already released the font for free and was not planning on backing down, which was probably the exact opposite of the reaction Boer wanted. The fact that Boer felt threatened enough by a cheaper free font shows just how weak his position is. Abelardo even admits that Boer's font is better and has become even better as a result of having more competition in the market. So why does Boer feel the need to threaten the competition? Shouldn't the fact that he can provide a better alternative be enough incentive for people to seek him out? Or perhaps, if people and companies are turning to cheaper or free alternatives, maybe it's a sign that he might be charging too much?

As someone with two dyslexic brothers, I am glad that there are people out there trying to make the world of text easier on them. Had my mother had access to a font like Abelardo's or Boer's, she probably would have had an easier time teaching them throughout school. Perhaps if the school systems that had abandoned my brothers had access to one of these fonts, they probably would have had an easier time teaching them and many others.

As we move into a more electronic world in which the ability to switch out fonts and make other changes to support the visually impaired becomes more accessible, we can provide a better solution to those who need the additional help. Unfortunately, if more people like Boer and legacy publishers get their way, such tools will be locked away behind expensive paywalls, decreasing the value and accessibility to those who truly need them.

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  1. icon
    Jeffrey Nonken (profile), 10 Oct 2012 @ 4:06pm

    About 8 years ago I had an interview with a fellow named Joe who had a company that made a nifty little device: it would alert parents when their child's bus arrival was imminent, also providing current distance. (I forget Joe's last name and the company name. I'm sure I have it written down somewhere. Doesn't matter.)

    It was based on a short-range radio technology in an unlicensed band, required an installation in the bus, and each client needed to buy a receiver. If you had two children on different busses, you'd need to buy one of his dual receivers.

    (At the time it was a pretty good idea, though by now about 95% of you have come up with more modern alternate solutions. There's probably an app for that. :)

    Meantime, and to the point, during the interview Joe bragged that his was the only one on the market; any time another company tried to compete, he'd managed to find some way to crush them or otherwise drive them out of the business. Even at the time I thought that was completely in violation of the spirit of proper capitalism. You're supposed to compete on merit, or price, or advertising, or... well, anything. The point is that you're supposed to compete. Of course, not being completely stupid, I STFU and figured, if I end up working here, maybe I can influence him later. I would have taken the job; I needed to feed my family. Idealism takes second place.

    I didn't get the chance; I blew the second interview because I couldn't sleep the night before. (Or maybe I wouldn't have made it anyway.) The job went to one of the other two finalists.

    But I think back with a certain amount of grim satisfaction knowing that, one way or another, his expensive, limited product, for all his protectionist practices, has become irrelevant in the face of technological advances. Either he learned to adapt or, more likely, had to find another business to monopolize.

    (Hah! I think this is it. My interview was in Reading, PA.)

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